Back in 2009, The Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Entertainment for the sum of $4 billion. The oft-parroted rationale for this decision, and for Disney’s subsequent acquirement of LucasFilm, is that the company is better at pitching to girls than boys, so they wanted some established “boy’s brands” to add to their quiver.
That $4bn seems like a bargain in the wake of Marvel Studios’ astronomical box office success and the general popularity of those characters, powering the renaissance of comic book movies that started with 2000’s X-Men into its second wind with the Marvel cinematic universe. All of this has served to make Disney’s own 2005 live-action superhero parody Sky High look staggeringly ahead of its time.
The titular institution is a secret hi-tech facility for the training of young superheroes, floating somewhere above the clouds. Will Stronghold is the offspring of Steve and Josie Stronghold, two of the world’s most famous superheroes, and big things are expected of him.
The trouble is, pretty much everyone in the world of Sky High seems to be super-powered, except Will. Upon arrival, the kids are sorted by ability into either “hero” or “sidekick” classes, but even his classmates have powers like glowing, turning into a hamster or more impressively, manipulating plant life.
It’s basically a good old-fashioned 1980s teen movie, (right down to the soundtrack of Disney-friendly covers of ’80s standards) with superheroes. Now, look at how comic book movies have since moved into the mainstream so completely by riffing on genres in the same way. If this had been released even five years later, it probably would have been a huge hit.
On top of that, it’s impeccably cast on all levels. The young cast includes up-and-comers like Michael Angarano, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danielle Panabaker and Nicholas Braun, all of whom could have easily have fit into some other product of the Disney Channel high school mould, but each bring something unique to their characters here.
Perhaps more notably, while Hogwarts’ teaching faculty was populated by great British thesps, the grown-ups of Sky High are cast from a Who’s Who guide to cult movies and TV. Former Kids in the Hall Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley play academics in Mad Science and “Hero Support” respectively, Lynda Carter is the principal, (who gets a smart comment about not being Wonder Woman) Cloris Leachman is the school nurse and, perhaps best of all, Bruce Campbell is the super-loud PE teacher.
Oh, and the mighty, mighty Kurt Russell’s in this too.
We don’t doubt that Disney greenlit this as part of the wave of films aiming to cash in on Harry Potter and you could probably boil the premise down to “Hogwarts for superheroes.” We do already have one of those, called Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, but look at how the two premises named by director Mike Mitchell as the chief basis of the film could also be ascribed to the Potter saga- “the adults are all insane” and “the girls are smarter than the boys.”
But there are other major similarities with the Potter formula too, from dangerous PE classes to the dubious might of Ron Wilson, Bus Driver, who serves as the film’s Hagrid. As the powerless son of two superheroes who drives the school’s flying bus and carries out other custodian duties, Kevin Heffernan is probably the deftest scene-stealer in a cast of terrific supporting players.
On a more obvious level, the film studies how this world’s internal class system probably creates its own villains during their formative years, with many of the “Heroes” encouraged to bully and ostracise their weaker classmates, and the Hufflepuff-like Hero Support eventually having turned out the film’s main baddie and inspiring a scheme that plays very much to that interpretation of nature vs. nurture.
Having lavished great attention to detail on its heroes, there’s admittedly something lacking in the arch-villain of the piece, Royal Pain, who winds up looking a bit Power Rangers. The snivelling henchman Stiches (Community‘s Jim Rash) doesn’t exactly detract from that image either, but the master-plan gels with the lighter coming-of-age angle and there’s a nigh unimprovable Brick Joke about Royal Pain’s alter-ego going unrecognised by Will’s parents, because the culprit is wearing glasses in their yearbook picture.
The comedic angle is what really marks this apart from any other Potter knock-off from the time. With tongue placed firmly in cheek and more than a little preference for cheese, it has tonnes of background jokes, sight gags and comic book references, but it succeeds as a family film because none of that stuff is designed purely for the adults, or to go over the kids’ heads.
Like another PG comedy, Galaxy Quest, it certainly benefits from a background knowledge of the subject being spoofed, but Sky High trades in sharp, precise jokes and subversions about a universal subject matter.
The result is the kind of film that could have comfortably led to a franchise or a TV series to continue exploring the premise. The cast all had options for follow-ups in their contracts, but the film was a relative flop at the box office and so it didn’t come to pass.
On the plus side, many of the young cast went on to do pretty good work afterwards- particularly Danielle Panabaker, who’s followed up a string of reliable supporting turns in genre movies like the underappreciated remake of The Crazies with a TV gig in comic book territory, playing Caitlin Snow in The Flash.
It still doesn’t seem entirely impossible that Disney might reboot or revisit this some time in the next ten years, with numerous live action remakes of their animated canon going into development and Tron 3, of all things, set to start shooting later this year.
With a cast made up of bright young things and cult favourites and a script that goes post-modern without ever getting arch or snarky, Sky High is a real gem from Disney’s live action catalogue. It borrows from JK Rowling, John Hughes, Joss Whedon and any number of comic books and yet still stands on its own. Next to the current superhero boom, it was so ahead of its time that a decade later, it seems sharper and funnier than ever.