Original US release date: July 29, 2005
Production budget: $35,000,000
Worldwide gross: $86,369,815
It had been a long time since I’d watched 2005’s Disney superhero original Sky High. I had a recollection of enjoying it, but memory is a funny thing and I couldn’t help but wonder if my opinion would change upon this revisit. I had a chance to chat with star Danielle Panabaker (now of “The Flash” fame) about the film, last summer, and she really enjoyed making it, as well. She also voiced being proud of the final product and I sensed some regret in her voice that the film didn’t break out and leave more of a pop-culture footprint. I told her that I enjoyed it and, as I prepared for this column, I hoped that I could still say as much after I watched it again, nearly twelve years after its original release. If nothing else, another of the film’s stars is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of whom my regular readers may know that I am not too shy to say is one of my favorites and I am also not too humble to remind everyone over and over that I predicted her success when she was a preteen supporting character on a now-obscure and long-defunct soap opera.
Happily, I can state that I still enjoy Sky High. For the unfamiliar, the premise is simple: a high school called Sky High exists for children of superheroes. Will (Michael Angarano) is the son of The Commander and Jetstream (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston) and is beginning his freshman year, along with his friends, his best being Layla (Panabaker). When Will becomes infatuated with senior Gwen Grayson (Winstead), tensions arise between him and his friends, while trouble begins brewing behind the scenes, as well.
This film was Disney’s attempt at a Marvel film years before they bought Marvel. Truth be told, it feels very much like the classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby material from the sixties. This film is all about fun; there’s no brooding, there’s no deep introspection, and there’s no complex psychological breakdowns. That’s not to say that it’s a narrative that only exists on the surface level. Like the early work from Stan and Jack, the characters grow and learn about themselves and about existing in a world where they are physically superior to the majority of others around them. And also like the Stan/Jack work, the characters are bright, bold, and over-the-top, while still managing to be relatable and humanly flawed.
The main theme of the film is that we as individuals decide who we are – not our physical makeup and certainly not society’s labels. It’s a fairly common theme for superhero films, but this was early in the superhero boom and being a common theme doesn’t preclude it from also being an appropriate one. Nor timely. The idea that others decide who we are still holds sway over much of society. Obviously, people project it onto others in the real world, but I actually hear it applied to fictional comic book characters, as well. How many people like characters based on their power sets alone? And we’ve likely all heard people say that powerless Black Widow doesn’t belong in the Avengers. Or that Aquaman is stupid. Or that Batman is the coolest because he doesn’t have powers (would that not mean that he doesn’t belong in the Justice League? Pick a side, people.). Real or fictional, there’s more to someone than their physicality and the film does a great job of getting that idea across in multiple different forms and through various scenarios.
The humor isn’t a total laugh riot, but I would say that a good 70-80% of it lands and I chuckled pretty consistently throughout the movie. And there are loads of Easter eggs for comic book fans, with the most obvious being Lynda Carter’s role as the principal. Recognizing all the different power sets (from Mr. Fantastic to Jamie Madrox and all sorts of others) is a lot of fun, too. There’s hardly an original superpower to be seen, but, again, that fits within the theme. All of the design work (character and set) is top-notch and the visual effects are charmingly rudimentary. The film aims to harken back to the early days of comics and partially achieves said goal by using less-polished effects that aren’t meant to be taken so gosh-darned seriously. It’s perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing. Mix in the cast, who all completely get the film and deliver complimentary, thoroughly-entertaining performances, and Sky High is a winner.
Until a pocket of faux-fans out there convinces me that Sky High should have been rated R, I feel confident in saying that this film is exactly what it should have been and any true appreciator and lover of comics – especially fans of the books that laid the groundwork for everything we have today – will find plenty to love. It’s also a completely original property, so casual audiences have no reason to feel out of the loop as they prepare to check it out. Maybe being an original property is what cut its box office performance off at the knees (I think a non-summer release would have helped it significantly, but that’s easy to say with the benefit of 12 years’ worth of hindsight) but there’s no doubt that the film deserved a better performance. It’s a film that has something for every member of the family, so sit down on a Saturday night with the kids and enjoy – or enjoy it on your own. It’s fun for anyone!
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