WHAT COULD be tougher than navigating the Darwinian social scene your freshman year in high school and simultaneously trying to live up to your overachieving parents' reps as stellar alumni?
Here's what could be tougher: living up to your parents' reps if they happen to be superheroes and you enter an elite high school for kids of such demigods (so elite it floats in the stratosphere on anti-gravitational thingamabobs), and your own inherited special powers, due to arrive with puberty, more or less, fail to manifest themselves.
That would be tougher.
Such a tale is "Sky High," a slight but sure-footed, live-action comic fantasy from Disney. Director Mike Mitchell deftly blends two genres -- the high school romance and the special-effects-laden superhero comic book adaptation -- and manages to spoof yet salute both with a refreshing lack of pretension. Yes, he pillages the great 2004 computer-animated lark "The Incredibles," by Disney's erstwhile partner, Pixar, but in forgivable, unassuming fashion.
"Sky High" uses plenty of "effects," but many were filmed as live-action stunts and not added later as computer-generated animation (though some were). The result feels surprisingly low-tech and human. The sets look just a trifle cheesy (a cut above the original "Star Trek" TV series), and the colors are as bright as a bag of assorted jelly beans.
As a kid flick, of course, "Sky High" carries a message. And it is one no one can argue with: that despite peer pressure, bullying, self-esteem issues and all the other delights of high school, kids can use the time served there to discover their own strengths and start following their bliss.
Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), son of Captain Stronghold (former Disney kid star Kurt Russell in blustering, eye-crinkling form) and Josie Jetstream (Kelly Preston), knows his parents expect him to follow in their world-saving path. Unfortunately, Will, who occasionally narrates the story, arrives at Sky High via rocket-powered school bus still minus his special powers, whatever they may turn out to be. His best friend, Layla (Danielle Panabaker), stays at his side while Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell of the "Evil Dead" films), his voice booming to seismic proportion, separates kids on the superhero track from those destined to be mere sidekicks. (Layla, by the way, sets aside her own special powers -- she can make plants grow superfast -- to be with Will. Layla, be true to yourself first!)
Will, Layla and their buddies, Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels), Zach (Nicholas Braun) and Magenta (Kelly Vitz), land in "hero support" class, taught by Mr. Boy (funny Dave Foley), still sensitive about his own stunted career.
The school's angry young man, Warren Peace (Steven Strait), who shoots flames out of his hands, has a grudge against Will's parents and takes it out on their son, until jet-powered Principal Powers (Lynda Carter -- "Wonder Woman" in a designer suit) breaks it up. Other bullies go after him, too.
Will's luck seems to change when his own powers kick in (we'll leave their nature secret) and the most popular girl in school (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) smiles upon him. It takes Will a while to recognize the evil plot afoot. He, Layla and their real friends, with their "minor" powers (Ethan melts, Zach glows, Magenta morphs into a rodent), must step up.
The younger actors all avoid ham-acting, and their more seasoned colleagues have fun with the witty material -- especially Kevin McDonald as cone-headed Mr. Medulla, teacher of "mad science," (both he and Foley are "The Kids in the Hall" alums) and briefly Cloris Leachman as a school nurse with X-ray vision. She'll know if you're fakin' it. "Sky High" isn't.
SKY HIGH (PG, 99 minutes) -- Contains comic book-style mayhem in which no one appears to get hurt, rare mild sexual innuendo and toilet humor. Area theaters.