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Sky High; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

Sky_High_movie_poster

Originally released July 29, 2005
Written by Paul Hernandez and Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle
Directed by Mike Mitchell

Starring Michael Angarano, Kurt Russell, and Kelly Preston

My rating: ★★ stars

Tired story and weak protagonist drag down clever mash-up of high school and superhero genres.

Sky High has a promising premise. Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), the son of the world’s greatest superheroes, The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), is all set to begin his freshman year at Sky High, a high school for superheroes. There’s only one little problem—Will has no powers.

The film is similarly powerless. It suffers from three major problems that it never manages to overcome. First, the character arc of the protagonist is a tired retread of teen films from the 1980s—nerdy guy gains sudden popularity and becomes a jerk, abandoning his old friends and interests for the shallow popular crowd, only to recognize his failings and return to his old genuine self, now a little wiser. (See The Heavenly Kid and Can’t Buy Me Love for classic examples of this plot.) The romantic subplot (where Will’s female best friend is in love with him while he remains oblivious and focused on the most popular girl in school) is also lifted from earlier, more emotionally genuine films. (See Some Kind of Wonderful.)

Secondly, Michael Angarano is not an appealing or charismatic presence. He’s not unlikeable in any specific way. He’s just not interesting. He doesn’t project any positive qualities—intelligence, physical attractiveness, a connection with the audience, etc.—that would make the viewers root for him or care about what happens to him.

Finally, the theme of the movie—criticism of school tracking that separates the students into heroes and sidekicks—is pushed too openly. Too often, the film comes off as a reductive dissertation on pedagogical practices. While I applaud the movie for the ambition to have a theme, I found its didacticism dull and less than insightful.

These problems at the center of the movie are a shame because the periphery is cute and clever—the movie has fun with the possibilities of a high school for superheroes—imagining superhero homework, PA announcements, a detention room that suppresses superpowers, and other minutiae.

The adult supporting cast, including Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Cloris Leachman, and Lynda Carter, proves a highlight. Most of these appearances are little more than amusing cameos, and that works. However, the size of the supporting cast of young people, with young Will having five cohorts (not including the school bus driver) and there being four bullies, leaves little room for any of these characters to be developed. The story possibilities involving Will’s archenemy, Warren Peace (Steven Strait), the son of a superhero and supervillain, are never explored because the character is never fleshed out as anything more than an idea.

This film is most disappointing because it has so much promise. It could have launched a franchise, and I have no doubt that the filmmakers thought of it as a Harry Potter with superheroes. But, despite a fun milieu loaded with possibilities, it failed to create a character we’d want to follow for more than one film or any storylines that showed potential or ingenuity.

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2 comments on “Sky High; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

  1. I agree with your take on the movie. I enjoyed Kurt Russell’s performance – he seemed like one of the few actors who was in on the joke, plus he has the screen presence to make his status as a superhero believable. I also remember thinking Mary Elizabeth Winstead was a lot more appealing as the villain than Michael Angarano was as the protagonist. I was pleased to see her have the chance to do interesting work in “Smashed” several years later.

    • You’re right about Russell. There is a sense that “gets” it and is having fun in the movie.

      I never saw Smashed, but Winstead, so far, has had an “almost” career. She’s gotten plum roles in movies that haven’t lived up to their pre-production hype, so she hasn’t had that breakthrough movie yet.

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