For the majority of my adult life, Disney’s live-action films have mostly â€¦ what’s the word I’m looking for? â€¦ oh yeah, “stunk.” Not that the rosy tint of nostalgia has me kidding myself that the live-action Disney efforts of the 1970s were classics; no one’s clamoring for the Criterion Collection versions of Gus and The Boatniks. But they were charming and innocent in their way, a far cry from flop-sweat junk like Herbie: Fully Loaded.
Who’d have guessed that all the Mouse needed was a good dose of John Hughes.
There’s a distinctly retro vibe to the youth superhero adventure Sky High, and not just thanks to the presence of Kurt Russell, who once played Disney’s resident young superhero in stuff like Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World. Here he plays Steve Stronghold, who fights evil as The Commander with his wife Josie (Kelly Preston), aka Jet Stream. But the real adventure is currently facing their 14-year-old son Will (Michael Angarano) who is about to become a freshman at the superhero training academy Sky High.
The tiny little problem facing Will is that'unlike his classmates, including his best pal Layla (Danielle Panabaker)'he hasn’t actually manifested any superpowers yet. And he’s not looking forward to letting his famous dad know he’s a “late bloomerâ€'not when lesser Sky High enrollees who don’t have cool powers like super-strength or flying face the stigma of being tracked as “sidekicks.
From the moment the trailers for Sky High began to appear, the premise seemed awfully familiar, combining elements of Harry Potter and X-Men to find similar metaphorical comparisons between puberty and developing special abilities. Writers Paul Hernandez and the Kim Possible team of Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle stand on some mighty big shoulders to get their story off the ground.
Their clever twist, however, is to season their spin on the concept liberally with the stuff of Hughes’ 1980s angst-olescence films like The Breakfast Club. The cliquish divisions between “heroes” and “sidekicks” provide some fertile ground for letting the appealing Angarano navigate the treacherous territory of high school, and the lasting anxieties of not being popular. The film even seems to have stolen its entire soundtrack from Hughes, providing nothing but cover versions of mid-’80s pop hits.
In his previous work, director Mike Mitchell appeared to be channeling Hughes at his worst in horrific “comedies” like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and Surviving Christmas, but here he’s wise enough to give his great supporting cast space to inhabit their characters. Russell does fine, smart work, playing The Commander as a jockish dad looking for similar attributes in his son. Kids in the Hall alums Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald contribute hilarious performances as Sky High faculty members, joined by Bruce Campbell as the gym teacher. The young stars all prove charming as well, but they could still learn some tricks of comic timing from watching the people playing their instructors.
There’s also a lot Disney could learn for upcoming live-action films by paying attention to what Sky High does right, despite the fundamental lack of originality in the film’s concept. It works as simple adventure, giving a charge to its regularly scheduled battle sequences. It’s got a wickedly clever sense of humor, including fun stuff like the kids’ math homework involving heroic-battle-related word problems (“If a super-villain is headed south at 15 mph â€¦â€).
But most of all, it has that same charm and innocence you could once count on from Disney fare, and a surprising reluctance to go for the cheap gross-out gag (one reference to diaper functions notwithstanding). Sky High has more respect for its audience than that, treating kids’ concerns with the same straight face Hughes employed even in his comedies. You can almost hear Simple Minds crooning “Don’t You Forget About Me” in the background.