Building Entertainment: The Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Sky High.

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Sky High

Year: 2005

Budget: $20 million

Box office: $86.4 million

Plot: Will Stronghold begins ninth grade at Sky High, a high school that exclusively teaches teenagers with superpowers. Will’s parents are The Commander and Jetstream, two of the world’s most famous superheroes. Will’s best friend, Layla, who happens to have a crush on him, has the power to manipulate plant life. Will is anxious about attending Sky High, located on a floating campus reached by a flying school bus, because, unbeknownst to his parents, he has not developed any super powers.

On the first day, he and the other ninth graders are harassed by a trio of bullies: Speed, a burly senior with super speed, Lash, a skinny senior with extreme flexibility, and Penny Lent, a senior cheerleader who has the ability to duplicate herself. Because of his lack of powers, Will is assigned to a curriculum for “Hero Support” and becomes a sidekick by Coach Boomer. His classmates include Ethan, who melts into a fluid; Zach, who glows in the dark; Magenta, who transforms into a guinea pig; and Layla, who joins the class in protest against the two-track nature of the school’s education system. The class is taught by The Commander’s former sidekick, “All American Boy.”

Will learns from Nurse Spex that not everybody gets powers, and there are such cases of those who have two superpower parents but do not get any superpowers such as the bus driver Ron Wilson. The Commander is unaware that his son has been relegated to Hero Support and shows Will his hidden trophy room also known as his “secret sanctum”. He is particularly proud of the mysterious weapon, “The Pacifier”, which he took from his science-themed nemesis Royal Pain years ago. Unknown to either of them, Royal Pain, who had been presumed dead, watches them from a hidden camera in one of the other trophies, alongside a maniacal sidekick named Stitches.

As Will settles into Sky High and makes friends with the other sidekicks, he comes into conflict with pyrokinetic student Warren Peace, whose supervillain father had been imprisoned by The Commander. During a fight between the two, Will eventually manifests super strength, impressing Gwen Grayson, a beautiful and popular technopath who controls machines with her mind. Will is subsequently transferred to the “Hero” track.

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Gwen visits the Stronghold’s house and asks Will’s parents to attend the Homecoming Dance to accept an award for Superhero of the Year, which they accept. Later on, while walking to her house, Gwen asks Will out to Homecoming and, to his delight, becomes his girlfriend. Will then begins spending more time with Gwen and her clique of friends, ignoring the sidekicks and Layla, who reveals to Warren that she has loved Will for a long time.

On the night before the dance, Gwen tricks Will into throwing a party at his house and uses Speed to steal the Pacifier, which goes unseen by Will when he takes her into the secret sanctum. After Gwen lies to Layla, who shows up to investigate the noise and believes the lie, Will breaks up with Gwen, refusing to attend the dance, even though his parents were invited as honored guests. Later, he looks through his father’s old yearbook and sees a student who resembles Gwen holding the Pacifier, which he subsequently discovers has been stolen. Believing that the student is Royal Pain and that Gwen is her daughter, he rushes to the dance.

At the dance party, Gwen reveals that she is actually Royal Pain herself. During her previous confrontation with the Commander, the Pacifier, which is meant to turn its target into an infant, had malfunctioned, turning her into a baby instead, thus faking her suspected death. Raised by Stitches, she has since waited 17 years for revenge. With the help of Stitches, Speed, Lash, and Penny, she takes over the school and uses the Pacifier to turn Will’s parents, the faculty and students into babies, and turning it into a supervillain academy and raise them as supervillains.

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After returning to school, Will apologizes to Layla and teams up with Warren, the sidekicks, and Ron Wilson to try to save the day. The sidekicks demonstrate their heroism after Royal Pain sabotages the school’s anti-gravity drive and their powers come in handy restarting it. Meanwhile, Will discovers that he has Jetstream’s powers of flight when he is thrown off the edge of the school grounds and prevents the campus from falling using his two abilities.

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Royal Pain and her henchmen are defeated and imprisoned in the detention halls and the faculty and students are returned to their proper ages. His parents thank all of the sidekicks and admit they are heroes. Warren develops a love relationship with Freeze Girl. Will and Layla kiss and a voiceover by Will at the end reveals that they become a couple, he and Warren became best friends, and Ron Wilson gained superhuman powers after falling into a vat of toxic waste, thus becoming a superhero.

Background: Paul Hernandez conceived if the idea in the 90s. In between working on the first and second seasons of the animated series Kim Possible, creators Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle had begun writing a script for a live-action adaptation. Impressed with their work, the filmmakers asked them to look into re-writing the script for Sky High, which had been previously shelved. Similar to Kim Possible, Schooley and McCorkle wrote Sky High to be equally appealing to both children and adults.

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Director Mike Mitchell said that Sky High functions on two premises: “the adults are all insane” and “the girls are smarter than the boys.” Mitchell also stated that the teenage actors all had their own trailer and were generally kept separated, because “we did not want them to date after the second week and break up after the fourth”, which would have made filming difficult. Mitchell, a science fiction fan, admitted that this project “was a dream”, because it brought him together with four of his favorite SF cult heroes: namely Wonder Woman, Snake Plissken, Ash Williams, and Hippolyta (Leachman).

Music and Songs: The score was composed by Michael Giacchino. The Sky High Original Soundtrack is composed of covers of songs from the 70s and 80s.

  • “I Melt with You” – Bowling for Soup (Originally by: Modern English)
  • “Through Being Cool” – They Might Be Giants (Originally by: Devo)
  • “Save It for Later” – Flashlight Brown (Originally by: The Beat)
  • “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Christian Burns (Originally by: Tears for Fears)
  • “One Thing Leads to Another” – Steven Strait (Originally by: The Fixx)
  • “Lies” – The Click Five (Originally by: Thompson Twins)
  • “Voices Carry” – Vitamin C (Originally by: ‘Til Tuesday)
  • “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” – Elefant (Originally by: The Smiths)
  • “True” – Cary Brothers (Originally by: Spandau Ballet)
  • “Just What I Needed” – Caleigh Peters (Originally by: The Cars)
  • “Can’t Stop the World” – Ginger Sling (Originally by: The Go-Go’s)
  • “And She Was” – Keaton Simons (Originally by: Talking Heads)
  • “Twist and Crawl” – Skindred (Originally by: The Beat)

Cast: Kurt Russell returns as Steve Stronghold / The Commander. Bruce Campbell returns as Tommy Boomowski / Coach Boomer / Sonic Boom. Dave Foley resturns as Jonathan Boy / All-American Boy. Kevin McDonald returns as Professor Medulla.

Michael Angarano as William “Will” Theodore Stronghold. He became known for his roles in the film Music of the Heart and the television series Cover Me and I’m Dying Up Here. Since then he has starred in a number of films including The Forbidden Kingdom, Haywire, The English Teacher, and Sun Dogs. Kelly Preston as Josie DeMarco-Stronghold / Jetstream. Her roles include Mischief, Secret Admirer, SpaceCamp, Twins, Jerry Maguire, For Love of the Game, Holy Man, Nothing to Lose, and Battlefield Earth.

Danielle Panabaker as Layla Williams. She appeated in Stuck in the Suburbs, Read It and Weep, and in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. She won three Young Artist Awards: for guest-starring in an episode of The Guardian, for her lead role in the TV film Searching for David’s Heart and for her ensemble performance in Yours, Mine & Ours. She appeared in Shark, Necessary Roughness, Bones, Justified, Mad Men, Mr. Brooks, Friday the 13th (2009), The Crazies, The Ward, and Piranha 3DD. Panabaker guest-starred as Caitlin Snow on Arrow in and was was spun off into The Flash. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Gwendolyn “Gwen” Grayson / Royal Pain (suit) / Sue “Tenny” Tennyson.1 Her first significant role came as Jessica Bennett on the NBC soap opera Passions and she went on to appear in Tru Calling, Wolf Lake, Monster Island, Final Destination 3, Black Christmas, Death Proof, Live Free or Die Hard, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Smashed, The Beauty Inside, The Spectacular Now, Faults, Alex of Venice, Swiss Army Man, The Thing, (2011) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 10 Cloverfield Lane, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Returned, BrainDead, Mercy Street, Fargo, All About Nina, Gemini Man, and as the Huntress in Birds of Prey.

Lynda Carter as Principal Powers. Carter is most widely known as the star of the American live-action television series Wonder Woman. Other roles include Super Troopers, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Super Troopers 2 She also provides voices for the videogame The Elder Scrolls. Kevin Heffernan as Ron Wilson. He is best known for his role of Vermont State Trooper Rod Farva in Super Troopers, as Landfill and Gil in Beerfest, and co-starring in the Dukes of Hazzard film as “Sheev”. He has also appeared on How I Met Your Mother, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, Arrested Development, and Agent Carter.

Cloris Leachman as Nurse Spex. She has won eight Primetime Emmy Awards, a Daytime Emmy Award, and an Academy Award for her role in The Last Picture Show. Her longest-running role was the nosy and cunning landlady Phyllis Lindstrom in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Phyllis. She appeared in three Mel Brooks films, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and History of the World, Part I. She also starred on The Facts of Life, had a cameo in The Muppet Movie, and appeared as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies. She had a recurring role as Grandma Ida on Malcolm in the Middle. She was a contestant on the seventh season of Dancing with the Stars in 2008, paired with Corky Ballas. She was 82 at the time and is the oldest contestant to have danced in the series. From 2010–14, she starred as Maw Maw on Raising Hope. In 2017, she played the role of Zorya Vechernyaya on American Gods. Jim Rash as Mr. Grayson / Stitches. He is known for his role as Dean Craig Pelton on Community, for which he was nominated for the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2012. That same year, he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and received a Golden Globe nomination for the film The Descendants. Since 2017, he has been the official voice actor for Donald Duck universe character Gyro Gearloose in the reboot of Ducktales, taking over the role from Hal Smith who died in 1994. Othe Other projects include One Hour Photo, Slackers, Minority Report, S1m0ne, Balls of Fury, and Captain America: Civil War.

Critical Reception:

  • Joe Leydon of Variety magazine praised the film calling it: “Smartly written and sprightly played, “Sky High” satisfies with a clever commingling of spoofy superheroics, school-daze hijinks” and “this lively live-action Disney release stands on its own merits as a tongue-in-cheek fantasy with cross-generational appeal.”
  • Neil Smith at BBC.com wrote: “While originality is hardly the film’s strongest suit, its agreeable mix of knowing spoof and kid-pleasing fantasy makes it considerably more engaging than some of the ‘straight’ superhero blockbusters we’ve suffered recently.”

Legacy: In November 2016, it was announced that Disney is developing a sequel to Sky High, and that the film is in early development stages. In January 2019, Mike Mitchell revealed about earlier plans to make a franchise; but due to the film’s box-office performance, nothing came to be. A sequel to the film would have been called Save U (as in Save University) and would have featured the characters graduating high school and attending college. There were also plans to make a TV series. Everyone, except for Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, had signed on to return.

My take: This movie is fun and funny. The kids are decent and the supporting cast is a deep bench. I like how the film plays with superhero tropes.

Available on Disney +?: Not until December 1, 2020

Next Week: The Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe