On paper (or an online summary), Sky High looks for all the world like a cynical attempt to squeeze more money out of whatever life’s left in the popularity of comic book movies by trying to combine the superhero theme with Harry Potter, but without looking like that X-Men school. But like its fellow superhero comedies Mystery Men and The Incredibles, Sky High turns out to be better than than half of the “real” superhero movies busily released over the past three years.

Though he’s not the main character, the movie rests on the shoulders of super-strongman Kurt Russell to make the world of the movie work, and he succeeds with flying colors (an expression I’ve purposely never used before but which finally seems applicable). Believe it or not, this is actually one of Kurt Russell’s best performances. He plays The Commander as if Adam West were playing Superman, but his genius is in playing it straight without ever once winking at the audience. Neither does he act like he’s slumming in a Disney movie for kids, and his sincere enthusiasm makes it impossible to roll your eyes at him. His costume looks absurd yet this is the first time I’ve ever actually liked him in a movie.

The main character himself, The Commander’s son, in line to be the first third-generation hero, mugs a bit too much for the camera, reminding us we’re watching a movie for kids, but he is average-enough looking to be an everyman every boy can wish he identifies with. His friends are a mix of pseudonymous established characters from comics (“Speed” is The Flash, “Lash” is Mr. Fantastic, Little Larry morphs into The Thing, and Layla is a nice version of Poison Ivy) and Mystery Men-style kids with lame powers (Zach glows a little and Magenta shapeshifts into a gerbil), while others have an amalgam of famous comic book names (Gwen Grayson).

Sky High doesn’t try to replicate the Marvel or DC universe, however, as the identities of famous superheros are well-known to all other heros. The movie’s only bit of self-consciousness is Lynda Carter as Principal Powers and her comment that she’s not Wonder Woman. Bruce Campbell, meanwhile, is surprisingly not underused as the PE Coach.

The pacing is brisk and I was surprised by the relative originality of the plot, which is delightfully Silver Agey and thus more inventive than most superhero comic books which currently seem obsessed with being “realistic.”

This is the light-hearted superhero movie that Fantastic Four wanted to be. There are a couple of fights but they’re wisely not overdone or overlong, and the movie should be commended for not trying to be an action movie. Its fun is found in the script and characters who, derivative as they are, don’t let the fact bother them. Recommended for anyone who feels like smiling for 100 minutes.

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