Movie Review: Percy Jackson And The Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Until very recently, I hadn’t even heard of Percy Jackson. I have not read any of the books and managed to not read or see anything about the movie until I saw the film trailer a few weeks ago. Now, having seen the film, an adaptation based on The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, I couldn’t help but notice similarities between Percy Jackson and another literary figure who has successfully segued onto the big screen. I am speaking, of course, of Harry Potter. Both young men resemble one another physically, grew up with absent (or dead) fathers and struggle to find acceptance within the context of the real world. Each discovers at a young age that they are powerful and special and are introduced to a magical world in which they are especially gifted and (for the most part) are made to feel welcome. Both Harry and Percy are accompanied on their adventures by their two best friends – a boy and a girl at that. That Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is directed by Chris Columbus, who also helmed the first two – and my least favorite - Harry Potter films (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), is bound to invite comparisons between the two series – in which Percy Jackson will certainly fall short.
The film begins with an ominous meeting between Poseidon (Kevin Mckidd, Rome) and his brother Zeus (Sean Bean), during which Zeus accuses Poseidon’s son of stealing his favorite lightning bolt. Poseidon defends his son, though he hasn’t seen him since he was a baby, and some threats are made during this confrontation – Zeus wants his bolt back and is willing to wage a war between the gods if it isn’t returned to him by an appointed time.
When we are introduced to Percy (Logan Lerman), he is submerged in a swimming pool and holding his breath. He emerges with perfectly coiffed, High School Musical Hair and is enthusiastically praised for his lack of need for oxygen by his physically handicapped best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), to whom he broadly intimates that the water is the only place where he can think (FORESHADOWING).
We quickly learn that Percy suffers from some type of non-traditional dyslexia (and possibly ADHD?) as well as an unsatisfying home life. His mother (Catherine Keener, utterly wasted here) makes Sad Mom faces and fetches beers for Percy’s stereotypically repellent stepfather (Joe Pantoliano), whom Percy loathes. Very little time is spent establishing these things, and soon Percy is on a Very Significant museum field trip during which we are introduced to Pierce Brosnan’s giant wig.
Percy, isolated from the group, is attacked in the museum by his substitute teacher – who is actually a Fury (no spoiler here, they show this in the trailer). Percy quickly learns that his friend Grover is a Satyr, his teacher (Pierce Brosnan) is a Centaur and he himself is the son of Poseidon – a demigod. Percy’s identity has heretofore been kept a secret and with the proverbial cat now out of the bag, it is necessary for his protection that he be taken to a demigod training camp - en route to which his mother is captured and dispatched of by a minotaur.
He accepts this loss fairly easily and swiftly adapts to demigod-camp life, his abilities present themselves with ease and Percy’s training success comes without too much effort made on his part. Not long after Percy hits his stride – which is to say, instantly – Hades shows up at a camp bonfire and reveals that he has abducted Percy’s mother, who is still alive. Hades also wants the lightning bolt (remember that?) and believing Percy to be the thief, offers his mother’s life in exchange for the coveted bolt. Percy then sets out to rescue his mother from Hades – with the secondary goal of acquitting himself of the lightning bolt theft – with help from fellow campers: Hermes’ son, Luke ( Jake Abel), Athena’s daughter, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Grover. Along their journey they encounter other mythical creatures and obstacles, the likes of which need not be mentioned here.
So, here’s the thing, the premise is interesting to me and this movie could have been so much fun, but I spent the entire film feeling like everything was just such a waste. The cast for this film is huge - Uma Thurman, Rosario Dawson and Steve Coogan are in it as well – and almost everyone embarrasses themselves in it (Uma, I am looking at you specifically - but not into your eyes, because you play Medusa – get it? I hate myself.) Pierce Brosnan, extravagantly be-wigged and attired in a leather vest, looks extremely silly as a Centaur and – it must be said - the lad playing Percy is a vacuum for charisma whose expression of emotional range is limited to mumbling, squinting and going mouth-agape.
Opportunities for humor, suspense or genuine relatability are consistently squandered – you have a seemingly normal teenage boy being introduced to this fantastical, awesome world but he eases into every scenario without any struggle, so the film lacks the tension necessary to engage the viewer. The film’s pacing is extremely brisk for its congested storyline and multiple characters, any issues that arise are resolved before the audience has a moment to care that the protagonists are in peril. I really think the film suffers as a result. Well, that and maybe from the screenplay. And the casting. And direction.
As with any film adaptation, I imagine that there is a great deal of detail and nuance that had to be left from the original source material to translate to the screen, but it is perplexing to me that so many groan-worthy indulgences made the final cut. Did we need to linger on Percy (arms raised and shaking with the thrill of victory) for what felt like an eternity as he bathed in the applause from his peers after capturing a flag during a routine training exercise? It may have made sense to witness Percy enjoying acceptance for the first time if we had seen him suffering from any kind of ridicule or abuse during his time in public schools, but we didn’t…boys who look like Chace Crawford tend to live under a warmer sun than most as it is.
I understand why iPhone and Converse product placement might work in a film angling for the CW demographic, but that doesn’t make their inclusion any less annoying or distracting. Aside from a single, severed-head joke that got a chuckle out of me, Percy Jackson was mildly entertaining at best. My expectations going into the film were completely neutral, but even so I left feeling disappointed.
Directed by Chris Columbus, screenplay by Craig Titley, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief opens February 12, 2010.