Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is the son of legendary husband and wife superhero team Commander Stronghold and Josie Jetstream (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston). As the offspring of a superhero, he is destined to attend Sky High, a school for super-powered kids that floats in the air like Cloud City from "The Empire Strikes Back." Like every high school, Sky High is divided into cliques, but here the caste system is comprised of heroes and sidekicks. On the first day of school, freshman must showcase their powers to Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell), who decides if a student will become a hero or be relegated to sidekick status. Will's problem is that he doesn't have any superpowers, at least not yet. So he's lumped in with the sidekicks, where he hangs out with childhood friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who harbors a secret crush on him. He also must deal with Warren Peace (Steven Strait), a flame-throwing student whose supervillain father was thrown in jail by Commander Stronghold.
When Will finally discovers he has super-strength, his social fortunes rise. Beautiful class president Gwen Grayson (are the filmmakers implying "Spider-Man's" Gwen Stacy and "Batman's" Dick Grayson got it on?) takes a liking to him, which further disappoints Layla. Eventually, a throwaway storyline takes on significance as a surprise villain unleashes a diabolical plan to destroy Commander Stronghold, Josie Jetstream and all the students of Sky High.
The mind boggles at the comedic possibilities of a high school for superheroes. But "Sky High" keeps it modest -- sometimes too modest. The movie seems parched for genuine wit, which is only occasionally sated. Two veterans of the TV comedy "Kids in the Hall" help nudge the comedy quotient: Dave Foley plays All-American Boy, a retired sidekick who teaches a class on Hero Support, and Kevin McDonald plays Mr. Medulla, sporting an oversized cranium.
Instead of going for straight comedy, the film treads lightly on John Hughes territory, even if the characters don't register beyond their superpower and their angst is more basic cable than big screen. But there is a sweet and universal quality to the concept. All teens want to fit in, whether they have superpowers or not (heroes and sidekicks is just another way of saying jocks and geeks). And every kid longs to find their place in the world and whatever it is that makes them unique. On the flip side, parents want their children to surpass them in achievement and happiness, so Commander Stronghold can't hide his anger when he initially discovers that Will is a sidekick. Nor can he suppress his glee when Will finds his super-strength. All these themes have been explored in better high school movies, but never in a better high school.
Kurt Russell easily heads the cast with good-natured, iron-jawed charm, and Angarano, on the cusp of adulthood yet still tousle-haired, is in line with Disney leading lads throughout the decades. Trick casting could have been trickier, with the bright spot being Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as school principal. The special effects aren't particularly special, but in no way do they detract from the film. In fact, they help tamp down expectations. Michael Giacchino's score is good, but a step down from his fabulous work on "The Incredibles." The soundtrack is filled with new versions of '80s pop hits, presumably as an elbow-to-the-ribs of the parents in the audience.
"Sky High" doesn't feel like a rip-off of "The Incredibles" or "Spy Kids," but rather their younger, underachieving cousin. Yet instead of lamenting what the film doesn't have, there is reason to enjoy what it does have. Namely, a clever concept, a pleasant cast and some light laughs. Starring Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston and Michael Angarano. Directed by Mike Mitchell. Written by Paul Hernandez and Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle. Produced by Andrew Gunn. A Buena Vista release. Adventure/Comedy. Rated PG for action violence and some mild language. Running time: 99 min