"Sky High": Training Days

This could have been a standard Hollywood bolt job. Take one of those coming-of-age teen comedies that John Hughes minted money with back in the '80s — "The Breakfast Club," maybe, or "Pretty in Pink." Attach it to the sort of suburban-superhero storyline that made "The Incredibles" such a heartwarmingly profitable hit. Then screw on a few Harry Potterisms for good measure, and — clank, bang — there you have it: a complete mess.

But "Sky High" rises above its motley origins, thanks to its nimble director, Mike Mitchell (now forgiven for his part in last year's accursed Yuletide turkey, "Surviving Christmas"), and its winning cast. The veteran actors involved anchor the movie with their comedic expertise; the young ones infuse it with their own fresh appeal; and the result is a picture that seems familiar, but feels new, too. It's a pure, sweet pleasure.

Will Stronghold (the puppy-eyed Michael Angarano of "Lords of Dogtown") has a couple of problems. Not only is he about to start his freshman year of high school, but the school at which he'll be starting it is Sky High, where the student body consists entirely of superhero offspring. Being the son of two of the school's most celebrated graduates, the mega-muscular Commander (Kurt Russell) and the high-flying Jetstream (Kelly Preston), Will has a lot to live up to — and, worryingly, he shows no signs of having inherited either of his parents' superpowers.

Sky High, to which Will and his fellow freshmen are transported by a magical bus (you almost expect it to drop all of them off at Hogwarts), floats in a field of clouds high above the Earth. As soon as the students arrive, they're ushered into the blustery presence of Coach Boomer, a retired superhero once known as the Sonic Boom (Bruce Campbell, of the revered "Evil Dead" movies). He proceeds to sort them into two categories. Those who have true superpowers will become heroes; those who don't will be consigned to the status of "sidekicks," and trained to provide "hero support." Will's friends have "sidekick" written all over them. Scrawny Ethan (Dee-Jay Daniels, of "The Hughleys") has the dubious ability to turn himself into a puddle. Gangly Zach (Nicholas Braun) can glow like a nightlight. And shape-shifting Magenta (Kelly Vitz) can turn herself into ... a guinea pig.

Will's closest pal, Layla (Danielle Panabaker, of "Empire Falls), who secretly adores him, could easily make the hero cut; she has the power to bend nature to her will. But she refuses to demonstrate it to Coach Boomer. "I think the whole thing's stupid," she tells Will. "Heroes and sidekicks — what is this?" ("High school," Will tells her.)

Since Will has no demonstrable powers of his own quite yet, he must join the rest of his friends in sidekick peonage. They form a glum substratum of high-school life, enduring the taunts of the school's super-bullies and the petty humiliations of the cool kids in the hero clique, chief among them the beautiful, snooty senior Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of "The Ring 2"), who, for inscrutable reasons of her own, immediately sets about luring Will away from Layla. There's also a misunderstood loner named Warren Peace (Steven Strait, a hunk with a future), who is the conflicted son of a superhero mother and a super-villain dad (who's now in jail, thanks to the Commander). And of course the students must also contend with a staff of oddball teachers, like Mr. Medulla, the pod-headed Mad Science instructor (Kevin McDonald, of "The Kids in the Hall"), and Mr. Boy (fellow "Kids" alumnus Dave Foley), a long-forgotten sidekick who was once widely and more proudly known as All American Boy.

Kurt Russell, who broke through as a child actor himself nearly 40 years ago, gives one of the movie's sharpest performances. The Commander's real-world persona is that of Steve Stronghold, a bustling, prosperous, khaki-clad real-estate broker. He and wife Josie/Jetstream keep their super-gear stowed away in a downstairs Secret Sanctum, but he's a gung-ho superhero 24/7. He greets Will's friends with a barked-out, "What's your name? What's your power?" And he's kind of judgmental about the Sky High super-youth of today. "Does that one kid really glow?" he asks Will. "Boy, they've really lowered the bar since I went there." He worries that his son isn't turning out the way he'd hoped ("When I was his age, I could put a truck on my shoulders"), but he strives manfully to be supportive. ("He can always go into real estate!") It's a jewel of comic acting.

Can Will find a way to live up to his father's expectations? Can he fend off the brazen Gwen and somehow reinstall himself in the good graces of the heartbroken Layla? And when a scary super-threat arises from an unexpected quarter, can he and his minimally gifted friends somehow manage to super-stop it? We know the answers to these questions, of course, but the movie arrives at them in clever and charming ways. It's fun. And given its baldly hybrid premise, that's pretty super in itself.

—Kurt Loder

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