John Hughes and DC Comics are paid loving homage in "Sky High," a rambunctious, noisy and generally appealing action comedy aimed at young teenagers and the elusive and hard-to-please audience known as their parents.
With one foot planted in the world of comic book fantasy and the other firmly stuck in the grim realities of high school, this is one of those rare family films that truly work for the whole family, even if Mom and Pop might find themselves needing earplugs during some exceedingly long and loud passages.
The premise is a good one. Fourteen-year-old Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) has grown up the son of two famous parents, Josie and Steve Stronghold (Kelly Preston and Kurt Russell), who are star real estate salespeople by day and world-saving superheroes, well, also by day. The conceit of "Sky High's" world is that extraordinary powers aren't secrets here; good and bad guys wear their outsize abilities on their big shiny sleeves. The Strongholds have proved to be the world's greatest superhero couple, and they're looking forward to Will's starting as a freshman at Sky High School, where teenagers are taught to hone their particular talents, so that the family can become a superhero troika. Sky High, it turns out, is much like regular high school, except that its bullies have the advantage of being able to stretch, bend and burst into flames at the most inconvenient moments.
What's more, as becomes clear during the school's humiliating ritual of dividing students into heroes or sidekicks, Will doesn't possess any discernible powers, unless you count ingenuity and virtue. Once he is shunted into sidekick class, young Stronghold must figure out a way to break the news to his parents while he navigates Sky High's complicated social scene, which includes an attractive, popular Queen Bee named Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a smoldering -- literally! -- outcast named Warren Peace (Steven Strait, who could pass for a young Antonio Banderas).
As with comic book fantasies such as "The X-Men," in "Sky High," grappling with superpowers is an apt metaphor for the confusion of puberty, when hormones surge with bewildering force. Director Mike Mitchell, working from a script by Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, exploits those parallels with finesse, but the filmmakers are also interested in the way everything else is magnified in a 14-year-old's life -- whether it's the pressures of parental expectations, intra-group competition or the predations of a typical adolescent girl, who as everyone knows possesses powers far more lethal than anything Stan Lee could dream up. (Like such recent family classics as "Holes," "Spy Kids" and "Freaky Friday," "Sky High" is sweet but never condescending in its depiction of youngsters' inner lives.)
"Sky High" features an enormously likable teenage cast, including Angarano (most recently seen in "Lords of Dogtown"), Strait and a lovely newcomer named Danielle Panabaker, who plays Will's sweet and socially conscious best friend (she thinks the whole superhero-sidekick dichotomy is fascist). But by far the most rewarding humor in "Sky High" comes from the adults, who are usually portrayed as fatuous, self-important blowhards. "Kids in the Hall" alums Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, as well as veterans such as Cloris Leachman and former "Wonder Woman" star Lynda Carter, play Sky High personnel with a delightful wink and a nod. But it's Russell who has the most self-deprecating fun here as he puts on his best "Incredibles" voice to portray Will's insufferably self-satisfied dad.
"Sky High" ultimately delivers a commendable message about the importance of integrity, courage and friendship. But it's packed with enough pumped-up fights and special effects to disarm a teenager's saccharin-detection system. And parents who want to tag along could do a lot worse.
Sky High (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for action violence and some mild profanity.