Jason Lethcoe’s book Amazing Adventures from Zoom’s Academy doesn’t particularly wow the reader with its prose, but the concept is solid — basically, Harry Potter with superheroes rather than wizards. The heroine, Summer Jones, is an awkward thirteen-year-old tomboy with a goofy father, Jasper, who likes to tinker with home appliances till they blow up in his face. But then one day it turns out he’s really a teacher at a special school for heroes that flies high above the clouds, and Summer’s whole world changes.
Tim Allen, best known to kids as Tim the Toolman and Buzz Lightyear, would seem to be perfectly cast as Jasper in the movie adaptation, simply called Zoom. Except that he isn’t. Jasper Jones doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and his daughter Summer is not only relegated to the periphery, but is now a glamorous sixteen-year-old, played by 23-year-old bombshell Kate Mara. Allen plays the title character Captain Zoom, who in the book was a three-foot-tall alien with an elephantine proboscis. Here, he’s a retired superhero who has lost his powers of super-speed, save in his little finger, which he uses to make fruit smoothies.
There isn’t any “Zoom’s Academy,” either — instead, the filmmakers have decided that it would be far more hilarious to set the action in a top secret government installation called … wait for it … “Area 52.” It’s presided over by Chevy Chase and Rip Torn, who inspire even less confidence than our current real-life government officials.
Captain Zoom is corralled back into service via tranquilizers and a large sum of cash in order to train a new group of superheroes to replace Zoom’s old team, who were all killed by his evil brother Concussion (Kevin Zegers, human co-star of the Air Bud movies). Concussion turned to the dark side as a result of government irradiation, which also deprived Zoom of his powers. Years after being sent to another dimension, the bad bro is preparing to return, and making a beeline for Area 52. Alongside bumbling scientist Marsha Holloway (Courteney Cox, in the kind of embarrassing slapstick performance one normally associates with her hubby David Arquette), Zoom must audition several misfit kids to find a group with nascent superpowers that can be trained and strengthened to save the world. Superstrong six-year-old Cindy Collins (Ryan Newman), the aforementioned Summer Jones, invisible teen Dylan West (The OC‘s Michael Cassidy, also 23), and expanding fat kid Tucker Williams (Spencer Breslin) are the chosen four, and since Concussion doesn’t actually return until near the end of the movie, what ensues is basically one big feature-length training montage.
It isn’t clear why Sony Pictures bothered to pony up the cash for Lethcoe’s book, as the movie has nothing to do with it save for two character names. Last year’s Sky High was actually a more faithful adaptation without even trying to be — one would think Lethcoe could even sue over that film’s similarities, but instead, Marvel and Fox sued Sony over Zoom‘s resemblance to the X-Men movies. Based on the final product, it would seem a frivolous suit — Robert Rodriguez would have more grounds to sue over similarities to Spy Kids. Presumably looking to recoup legal costs, Sony has filled the movie with some truly heinous product placement, making a stop at Wendy’s a key plot point and naming a robot sidekick Mr. Pibb.
The shame of it is that Allen actually delivers a nicely nuanced performance as the reluctant father figure, and the child actors and “teens” make a likable impression, though Mara and Breslin are given almost nothing to do. Director Peter Hewitt is best known for the first Garfield movie and a UK flick called Thunderpants, about a kid with amazing farting abilities (a similar character briefly shows up here too). So it’s not as if there were high expectations from him to begin with, but the ultra-cheap-looking special effects and slapdash scene transitions don’t help. In fairness to editor Lawrence Jordan, however, it may be that no amount of cutting could save things — one gets the sense that he was frantically trying to create a story out of nothing at all.
And then, of course, there’s a credit likely to make many moviegoers cringe in terror: “Songs by Smash Mouth.” It’s a small blessing that one of them is not the relentlessly overplayed “All Star,” but a significant curse that they do attempt to cover Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” — if you hated the Vanilla Ice interpretation, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Then again, the movie itself is such a horrible knockoff that it makes a kind of sense for the soundtrack to be that way too.