Friday, February 12, 2010

Movie Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians--The Lightning Thief

It's very hard not to talk about "Percy Jackson and the Olympians..." without making comparisons to Harry Potter.

That's a bit unfair, I realize. After all, Rick Riordan studied Greek mythology and began writing the books well before the world learned about Hogwarts. And while there may be some similarities, they are basically structural ones...everything else is drawn from myths that have been around hundreds of years.

Then again, 20th Century Fox clearly wants audiences to head into this looking for "the next Harry Potter." They even went and hired director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two "Potter" installments for Warner Brothers, something the trailers tout very prominently.

And while I'll try to keep the "Potter" references to a minimum here, the truth is that the very things that keep "Percy Jackson" from being a great film--although it's a fun one--are the things that JK Rowling and Co. did so well and have made Harry transcend simple entertainment to be one of the most beloved pieces of literature/film of the last few decades, while "Percy Jackson" merely distracts and entertains for two hours. It's not a bad distraction and it will likely please its core audience. It's just that every once and awhile a very similar "Potter" component appears and reminds us once again how much better that series is in comparison; it's like being reminded of how great "The Wizard of Oz" is while watching "The Goonies." Don't get me wrong; I love "The Goonies"...but it's no "Wizard of Oz."

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is just an average teen living in the Bronx, struggling with ADD and dyslexia. His mom (Catherine Keener, criminally underused) has married a cruel slob of a stepfather (Joe Pantoliano) and Jackson, of course, is having problems reconciling all of this. His only moments of clarity come when he sits at the bottom of a swimming pool for ten minutes at a time to think. Things don't get much better for Percy during a trip to the National History Museum when his teacher turns into a demon and tries to kill him. Don't you hate adolescence?

It turns out that Percy is the son of Poseidon. If you remember your Greek mythology, it seems that the gods were quite randy and would often come to Earth and hook up with mortal women. So it happened that Percy's mom ran into some guy on the Jersey Shore who said he was Poseidon. Then he split, after Zeus cut off all contact between gods and their children--demigods. In an opening scene, we see that Zeus's (Sean Bean) lightning bolt has been stolen and he believes the son of Poseidon is to blame--why he believes that is never really explained, nor is an explanation given as to why the base of Mount Olympus has been moved to the Empire State Building.

Anyway, protected by his best friend and satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), Percy leaves the comfort of his mother and heads off to a safe location in the woods. Poseidon, it seems was not the only amorous god...they've been setting up franchises all over the United States before turning into deadbeat dads and sending their children to a summer camp that trains them to be expert warriors. When Hades (Steve Coogan) kidnaps Percy's mom and demands the lightning bolt in return for her safety, Percy, Grover and new friend Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario)--the daughter of Athena--head off across the country to find sacred pearls that will allow them to enter Hades and escape unscathed.

I know I had some fun with the plot description, but I will give the film credit for the way it weaves Greek mythology through our modern culture. Percy's dyslexia is actually a symptom of being a demigod--what he initially sees as dyslexia is actually his brain rearranging letters into the Greek alphabet. There's a fun visit to a stone garden to visit Medusa, a thrilling battle with a hydra in the Parthenon (Tennessee) and an acid trip-like encounter in Las Vegas with the Lotus Eaters. Columbus tells the story with energy and humor and it moves fairly briskly; his skills as an action-fantasy filmmaker have improved greatly since the first two "Harry Potter" films and he appears to be more comfortable with using computer effects (let's remember the first two "Potter" films are also the weakest in the franchise).

There's some great fun to be had and the A-list actors are clearly having fun, particularly Pierce Brosnan as a minotaur and Uma Thurman as Medusa, clearly relishing her opportunity to do some PG-rated vamping. Coogan, as Hades, is mostly hidden behind special effects but is allowed to cut loose on a trip to the underworld, where Hades shows up in full rock star regalia. Rosario Dawson, as Persephone, is allowed to be as hot as a kids' film allows.

A side effect of that, however, is that the side characters steal the thunder from the main actors. Lerman, Daddario and Jackson do what they can with the roles, but there's nothing original or particularly endearing about Percy and his friends. Whereas Rowling's characters each had innate personalities and a quirky charm--and were brought to life by sheer lighting-in-a-bottle choices when choosing the young actors to portray them--Percy and his friends are just standard wisecrack spouting Hollywood teens. They lack the dorky appeal of a Ron Weasley or the innocence and goodness of Harry Potter...Annabeth could be a tomboyish Hermione, but she's not given much to do other than shoot arrows and run from danger. The characters aren't unlikable--and hopefully in future installments there will be some depth added. But on this first go around, there wasn't much that endeared them to me.

Indeed, that seems to be my reaction to "Percy Jackson" as a film. I was never bored while watching it and was even entertained by the fun action sequences and clever way of melding a modern kids' tale with ancient legend. I could see myself enjoying this as a 12-year-old and made a comment to a friend shortly afterward that I had enjoyed the movie much more than I thought I would have.

But over time, my enthusiasm waned and I found the experience did not stick with me the way a great adventure should. While the incorporation of the Greek mythology is fun, the modern-day setting lacks the romance and whimsy to set it in and leaves the film feeling more like an action story than a true fantasy-adventure. Percy and his friends are fine to spend two hours with, but I can't necessarily say I was curious to see what awaited them next. The final encounter with Percy and the gods comes off clunky and anti-climactic instead of jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. And for a film that posits some interesting ideas--the gods as absentee fathers--the film quickly runs from dealing with them any deeper or giving the characters any emotional resonance. Even when Percy's mother is taken away by Hades, he simply wakes up in a hospital, has a moment or two of remorse and then stands up and heads off to explore the camp as if nothing happened.

And yes, the core audience likely won't care about this. Except that they might. After all, I've mentioned the similarities between Harry Potter--a kid from a special family background finds out he's extraordinary, is taken to a magic facility for people like him and goes off on a Scooby Doo-esque adventure with his friends. True, it's a troupe used time and again in storytelling--but younger viewers will quickly spot the Potter influence. And they may come away realizing that Rowling's story created an enchanted world for its characters to play in and dealt with resonant themes like love, sacrifice and friendship. Younger viewers may not be able to articulate it, but they'll know some thing's missing. Part of it is simply that Rowling created a once-in-a-generation masterwork that is hard to equal. But part of it is also that in an attempt to make lightning strike twice, they've robbed it of any thunder.

1 comment:

  1. I hated this film precisely because I like the books so much. In the movie, half the plot is missing or changed (for the worse), and *all* the characters are drained of personality and backstory. Percy is not this bland (if he was, I wouldn't read the books). Grover is not a Chris-Tucker-wannabe; he is an insecure Junior Protector whose previous "failure" got a demigod killed (a demigod who isn't even mentioned in this movie despite the fact she plays an enormous part in the following books!).

    Also, the film utterly ignores Rick Riordan's hilarious first person voice. Percy is mouthy. Percy is impulsive. Percy is witty. Percy doesn't know when to quit ticking off the gods, as Annabeth points out to him more than once. (Don't get me started on her ... the movie combined her with another character and in so doing just destroyed her.)


    Anyway. Just wanted to defend a YA series that I am enjoying enough to purchase. I knew we were in trouble with the movie when it started with Zeus and Poseidon spouting forced-angry exposition at each other. Sigh.



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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.