Sky High

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Whether it is the smart literary adaptations of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, the dark satire of Heathers and Election, the comedy of manners in Mean Girls, the drama of Dead Poets Society, the horror of The Faculty, or even the messianic sci-fi of Donnie Darko, the high school movie has always been a sub-genre of remarkable flexibility and singular appeal. So universal is the high school experience that any film set there is guaranteed to offer recognition for the younger viewer and nostalgia for the older, while wrapping it all up in the perennial allure of rites-of-passage plotting, thanks to the inevitably adolescent status of all the principal characters (apart, of course, from the principal).

The locker-lined hallways are, above all, a microcosm of the corridors of power. As the school's geeks, cheerleaders, jocks and rebels get by, get laid, get lost or get beaten up at 3.15, they are merely rehearsing the confusing hierarchies, "class" divisions and heavily codified social strata that adults must negotiate as part of their everyday lives.

This is something that Mike Mitchell's knowing family comedy Sky High understands all too well. For while it has many of the stock scenes that characterise any high school movie, including a cafeteria brawl, young unrequited romance, a house party and a climax at the homecoming dance, the school in which it is set just happens to be a highly selective academy where the pupils' usual hormonal changes and developing personalities are accompanied by emerging superpowers that they are taught to use in the service of the community. Here, teen empowerment takes on a very literal form, even if events never stray far from the world as envisaged in a John Hughes movie.

Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is under great pressure to live up to the reputation of his parents, the legendary superhero duo of The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), but on his first day at Sky High, his total lack of superpowers sees him streamed, not with the Hero class, but with the nerdy Sidekicks. Yet, with the help of his underrated classmates, Will must beat the school bullies, negotiate the complex rituals of teen courtship, find out who he really is and save his parents, the school and even the world.

If you have seen Spider-Man, The Incredibles, the latest Star Wars trilogy, or TV's Buffy and Smallville, then the notion of teenagers struggling to control their nascent supernatural powers is hardly going to seem original, but by affectionately poking fun at the tropes of high school and superhero flicks alike, Sky High never forgets to keep its emphasis on fun. Not unlike the Batman TV series from the Sixties, which has clearly been an influence, Sky High is happy to run with its own essential cheesiness, exulting in the absurd banality of the characters' costumes and the quirkiness of their abilities. Will's zero-to-hero story arc may be predictable enough, but it is merely the utility belt from which all manner of bizarrely inventive devices are suspended, such as the ambivalent firebrand aptly named Warren Peace (Steven Strait), the girl (Kelly Vitz) whose only power is to transform into a purple guinea pig, or the lessons in Mad Science offered by big-headed baldie Mr Medulla (Kevin McDonald).

Most of the film's plot is firmly focused on teenagers stumbling towards maturity, but as is so often the case in high school films, it is the adult characters who prove far more childish than their younger wards and as they continue to fight the same old battles that date back to their own formative years, their arrested development gives the film some of its funniest moments. Sky High offers teenage kicks as good and clean as they can be when wrapped in spandex.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2005
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Super-powered high school comedy.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

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