No one makes movies about teen angst the way John Hughes used to make them. Hughes doesn’t even make movies about teen angst the way he used to make them.
But “Sky High” captures the humor and heartache lurking in the high school halls with a style that should spark memories in children of the ’80s while also appealing to kids who weren’t even born by the time the decade was done. (The soundtrack — from ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” to Spandau Ballet’s “True” — adds to the retro vibe. Too bad they’re all covers.)
The idea isn’t exactly original, and neither is the fact that the students who attend Sky High — which is literally hidden among the clouds — are there to hone their superpowers. All of them: the geeks and the popular kids, the jocks and the hippies and the obligatory misunderstood rebel. It’s as if “Sixteen Candles” were populated by X-Men rejects.
But director Mike Mitchell keeps things fresh with the help of an eclectic, likable cast that includes Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter, Cloris Leachman and Dave Foley.
The kids are also especially well-cast, notably Michael Angarano as Will Stronghold, only son of the world’s two most powerful superheroes, who’s entering Sky High as a freshman with no apparent powers of his own; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Gwen Grayson, the beautiful and persuasive student body president; and Danielle Panabaker as Layla, Will’s childhood best friend who has a secret crush on him. (That plot point comes straight from “Some Kind of Wonderful,” for which Hughes wrote the screenplay.)
Late-bloomer Will nervously arrives at school on his first day in a bus that flies to its secret location — a fun sequence, but one of many that writers Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle seem to have borrowed from the “Harry Potter” books. (Kevin Heffernan from the Broken Lizard comedy group gets some laughs as the kids’ overzealous, overfed bus driver.)
He and the other freshmen are quickly whisked away to the gym, where Coach Boomer (cult favorite Bruce Campbell from the “Evil Dead” movies) yanks them on stage, forces them to show off their superpowers and then separates them accordingly into Heroes and Sidekicks. Again, this is too much like “Harry Potter” and its house-sorting ceremony. But we’ll go with it because it’s essential to the film’s ideas about exposing the hypocrisies of judging and dividing people. Plus, it’s funny.
Will has been under intense pressure to succeed from his father (Russell, showing great comic-book hero swagger) and mother (Kelly Preston) — better known as Commander and Jetstream. But he suffers performance anxiety when the time comes and ends up a Sidekick.
His classmates are an amusingly motley group: nerdy Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels), who turns into a puddle; purple-haired goth chick Magenta (Kelly Vitz), who can only transform herself into a purple-haired guinea pig; and cocky Zach (Nicholas Braun), who insists he can glow. Layla actually has powerful powers — she can control nature — but the earthy, strong-willed young woman is kicked over to the Sidekicks, too, when she refuses to display them on command.
Eventually, the bullies get their comeuppance, the nerds have their day, and young love flourishes. All of this takes place at that teen-movie staple, The Big Dance. But “Sky High” is so funny and sweet and observant — and so much warmer than other family films that feign hipness through product placement and pop culture references — you won’t mind that the steps feel familiar.