Fun from start to finish, Sky High is an old-fashioned Disney comedy smart enough for adults as well as kids. Bright and eager to please, it reworks themes and situations from teen films of a generation ago in a manner that makes a surprising amount of sense today. Pitched at pre-adolescents, the film may wind up more successful in home markets. But in the face of relatively little competition, Disney should still count on strong theatrical returns.
Sky High takes place in a world similar to The Incredibles, where superheroes have matter-of-factly integrated themselves into the community. When not saving the city from villains, The Commander (Kurt Russell) and his wife Jet Stream (Kelly Preston) are high-powered realtors Steve and Josie Stronghold. In Sky High's rules, superpowers can be inherited, and the Strongholds are waiting anxiously for their teen son Will (Michael Angarano) to "blossom." Since his powers haven't yet arrived, and may not display themselves until puberty, Will approaches the opening day of high school with trepidation.
Designed for kid superheroes, the Sky High school sits on a special anti-gravity platform high above the city. It's a great set-up for a breezy comedy about high school haves and have-nots, or, in this case, heroes and sidekicks. Will and his neighborhood friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker) find themselves struggling against cliques of jocks, cheerleaders and geeks, with the hostility of normal school amplified by X-ray vision, super-speed, shape-shifting and assorted other traits.
In typical Disney fashion, Will faces several tests, including a bitter rivalry with Warren Peace (Steven Strait), a surly delinquent whose villainous father was imprisoned by The Commander. Will must also choose between loyalty to his sidekick friends and a prom date with the lovely Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose mastery of technology becomes evident on the night of the dance.
Rebounding from the abysmal Surviving Christmas, director Mike Mitchell finds a comfortable balance between slapstick and sentiment, and elicits winning performances from his young actors. Angarano, Panabaker, Winstead and Strait all register strongly, but it's the veterans who make the strongest impression here. Kurt Russell is delightful as an inattentive but still demanding dad, while Kevin McDonald and Cloris Leachman find subtle ways to subvert the film's occasionally preachy moments.
Despite the retro production design and deliberately dated special effects, kids will figure out pretty quickly that Sky High is essentially an Americanized version of Harry Potter. Disney's take on the story may be sunnier and less emotionally fraught, but it's still very entertaining.