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Photograph by Sam Emerson

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston wrestle with a mechanical entree in 'Sky High.'

Pretty in Capes

'Sky High' proves that sometimes the first step is admitting cheesiness

By Richard von Busack

ALTHOUGH NOT a sky-high-budgeted superhero movie, Sky High is a success where the similarly cheddar-flavored Fantastic Four was a failure. Cleverly, it uses its low-grade special effects as illustrations, rather than showstoppers. The film's theme is explained in four or five perfect minutes by Cloris Leachman, who plays the school nurse at a special high school for superheroes called Sky High. If a child is dropped into toxic waste or bitten by a radioactive spider, he develops his superpower in a few days, "unless he dies." For the hereditary superhero, the powers kick in any time after adolescence—sometimes sooner, sometimes later, sometimes never. Unfortunately, freshman Will (Michael Angarano) has got nothing to show for himself, despite having two world-renowned cape-bearers for parents: the Supermanish Commander (Kurt Russell) and his wife, Jetstream (Kelly Preston).

So Will is assigned to training as "Hero Support." In other words, he's a sidekick, destined for a life of being held hostage and handing over weapons. He joins his fellow rejects: Ethan (Dee-Jay Daniels), the Urkel type, whose power is his ability to liquefy into a puddle; Zach (Nicholas Braun), who glows in the dark; and Magenta (Kelly Vitz), a shape-shifter, or rather, a girl who can turn herself into a guinea pig.

But all are watched by an armor-plated medieval-themed supervillain called Royal Pain, who plans to revisit the school dance and seek revenge. Pain, voiced by Patrick Warburton (The Tick and Puddy on Seinfeld), is more my idea of Dr. Doom than what we just got on screen a few weeks ago. Unlike in Fantastic Four, the supervillain speech isn't neglected. Royal Pain even stops to comment that this one may be "the best supervillain speech of all time."

This cheerful kids-stuff parody of X-Men drifts into Harry Potter territory. The school has eccentric instructors: Bruce Campbell as a sneering coach, David Foley as the nerd teacher who can't get over his champion season as the sidekick "American Boy" and Kevin McDonald as Mr. Medulla, a futuristic brain with a watermelon-size cranium. Since this is the most cinematically nostalgic summer in living memory, it's no shock that Sky High has its own backward-day angle. Sky High dwells in John Hughes country. The score is loaded with covers of '80s music. Whenever the bad vixen Gwen shows up (she's played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as savory as the young Phoebe Cates), Spandau Ballet starts uh-huh-huh-huhing on the soundtrack. The neglected heroine, Layla, is played by the redheaded, ultra-Ringwaldian Danielle Panabaker. The school's bad boy, who is literally fiery (Steven Strait, very good), seems dangerous at first but turns out to be sensitive and loaded with advice. The drill should be well known by all who survived the Hughes Scare of the 1980s. If this strategy seems a little weak, maybe it is because director Mike Mitchell follows that Hughes formula faithfully, without sending it up as he sends up the superhero lore.

Sky High (PG; 102 min.), directed by Mike Mitchell, written by Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, photographed by Shelly Johnson and starring Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston and Michael Angarano, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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