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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (review)

Percy Jackson’s Slightly Bogus Journey

So it can be told: The road to hell isn’t paved with good intentions, it’s paved with Harry Potter wannabes.

Now, now — I know that’s not quite fair to anyone involved with this perfectly inoffensive, occasionally clever kids’ movie. The book it’s based on, by Rick Riordan [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], was written before the Harry Potter phenomenon was a gleam in anyone’s balance sheet… though it’s a sure bet the only reason it was finally published more than 10 years later, in 2005, is because everyone was trying to hitch a ride on the teenaged wizard’s Firebolt. It’s probably very likely that both Riordan and J.K. Rowling accidentally hit on something bubbling under the zeitgeist that struck a chord with today’s kids, and that’s certainly something to be commended. (The Percy Jackson books — of which there are, at last count, five — are huge bestsellers, too.) But it’s also unfortunately the case that the many similarities between the protagonists, their magical worlds, and their adventures — however inadvertent those similarities may be — means that Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, the movie, will feel like a somewhat less charming reflection of the Harry Potter films to anyone not already on the Percy Jackson bandwagon.

When I say “the road to hell,” I don’t mean that this energetic but sometimes slightly forced fantasy is hellishly bad. Not at all. I mean that that’s the basic story: New York City teenager Percy Jackson — who’s been aged up from the 12-year-old of the book to 17 (the same age as the film’s appealing star, Logan Lerman: Gamer, My One and Only) — discovers he’s a demigod and embarks on a trip to the underworld to recover a valuable object in order to avert a war among the gods. Percy, you see, learns that his dad is Poseidon (Kevin McKidd: Made of Honor, The Last Legion) because someone stole Zeus’ (Sean Bean: Flightplan, The Island) master lightning bolt, and some of the gods think Percy has it. As if adolescence weren’t bad enough that someone needed to pile demonic minions of the gods on top of it.

It kinda doesn’t make sense, because if Zeus is omnipotent (as Poseidon says here he is), couldn’t he just magick the missing master lightning bolt back into his possession? Not that it really matters, of course, because the fun here is in seeing how Riordan, screenwriter Craig Titley (who does a much better job than he did with the terrible Cheaper by the Dozen movies, or with the downright inexplicable big-screen, live-action Scooby-Doo flick), and director Chris Columbus (who, yes, directed the first two Harry Potter movies) play with the notion of the ancient gods surviving into the modern world. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, has winged Converse! (I want!) The entrance to the underworld is in Hollywood! (Of course.)

But I couldn’t help but keep a little checklist running in my head, even as I reazlied it was a bit prejudiced. Camp Half Blood, where the children of the gods (there’s lots of them) learn how to use their powers? Hogwarts. Percy’s best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson: Tooth Fairy, Tropic Thunder), a wisecracking oddball who turns out to be a satyr? Ron Weasley. Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of wise Athena, who’s always right about everything? Hermione Granger. Many movies are like many other movies — this is a fact of popular storytelling back to Shakespeare… hell, back to the Bible — and it doesn’t necessary sink a tale. And it doesn’t quite sink this one, either. But it does lessen the pleasures to be had in Percy Jackson, because it never quite overcomes its sense of being perfunctory. There’s one secret bad guy, for instance, who’s no secret because he’s so obvious from the get-go. There’s one solution to a puzzle that, once it’s deployed, makes you go, “Hey, why didn’t they just do that five minutes ago, before the big cool monster battle?”

It’s in the few genuinely cinematically joyful moments, the ones that do rise above the formula, that you realize how much more this could have been: Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, In the Loop) having a ball as Hades is one. He’s full of gleeful grimness, and maybe that’s why Percy Jackson feels lighter than Harry Potter: it is, for the most part, quite light for such a heavy scenario, as if, perhaps, it’s afraid to touch on the darker side of childhood. So it’s fine for kids seeking diverson — and there’s certainly something zeitgeist-revealing that today’s kids get to see themsilves reflected in the honest, noble, and brave Percy and Harry, while Gen X got ours in Bill and Ted — but probably not meaty enough to please even geeky, fantasy-loving adults.


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Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
US/Can release: Feb 12 2010
UK/Ire release: Feb 12 2010

MPAA: rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language
BBFC: rated PG (contains moderate fantasy violence and threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • marky

    OK, well at least it isn’t awful, right? I have a 9 year old who loved the books, and REALLY wants to see this movie. I generally avoid going to crappy kids movies, but I thought I’d throw the kid a bone with this one. I’m actually relived to hear that’s it’s mediocre! lol

  • Bluejay

    …as if, perhaps, it’s afraid to touch on the darker side of childhood.

    That’s interesting. I thought the first book didn’t shy away at all from real-life difficulties like Percy’s dyslexia or his home issues with a neglectful, abusive stepfather; those problems were, IMO, more realistically depicted than the cartoonish abuse of the Dursleys. Maybe the movie doesn’t capture that aspect of it? In any case, I’m still looking forward to seeing it soon…

  • MaryAnn

    didn’t shy away at all from real-life difficulties like Percy’s dyslexia or his home issues with a neglectful, abusive stepfather

    That’s all here, but played if not quite for laughs, then with a dismissiveness that means they don’t have much weight. And yes, the Dursleys are broadly drawn, but so is almost everything in the *Harry Potter* universe.

  • Bluejay

    Okay, I just took some time to see it today, and I have to say I’m kinda disappointed. I pretty much agree with your review. I’ve read the book, and while I’m not against movies making changes per se, I think this movie did cut out or alter a lot of things that made the book so much more interesting.

    *spoilers?*

    Percy in the movie is given much more information via boring exposition; the fact that he’s the son of Poseidon, for instance, is given a more dramatic reveal in the book. They took out a lot of cool characters who affect the book’s plot in significant ways–including Dionysus, Ares, and Ares’ demigod daughter, who’s Percy’s rival at camp (they give the rival-ish qualities to Annabeth instead, which doesn’t quite work as well). And in the book, the secret bad guy is working for a Secret Badder Guy–okay, Kronos, the Titan–with a lot more power and a more interesting motivation. And both the secret bad guy and Kronos are recurring characters; in the film, the fate of one and the absence of the other makes me wonder if they just intended this to be a one-off with no sequels. (Then again, the Kronos plot is very similar to the Voldemort-trying-to-come-back plot, so maybe the filmmakers really wanted to avoid any Potter comparisons. Made a duller story, though.)

    I particularly miss some of the book’s irreverent touches: Charon, for instance, is supposed to be a shades-wearing dude who favors expensive Italian suits (which is why he’s tempted by a bribe of gold drachmas). In the film, he’s just, you know, Charon. And in the book, after Percy cuts off Medusa’s head, he packages it up and sends it by magic UPS to Olympus, as a fuck-you to the gods. (Though of course, then he couldn’t use the head as he does in the film.)

    I did enjoy the Lady Gaga sequence. And the line “You’re going to kill the janitors? But they’re hardworking Americans!”

    Oh well. Logan Lerman was good. And if the film gets some kids interested in Greek mythology, maybe that’s a net good.

  • Bluejay

    I also think it’s a shame they couldn’t somehow work Rick Riordan’s awesomely hilarious chapter titles into the movie, like: “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher,” “Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death,” “Grover Unexpectedly Loses His Pants,” A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers,” and “I Battle My Jerk Relative.”

    Showing the titles before each major event, silent-movie style, might have made the film more distinctive and fun.

  • Lozateazer

    But Bluejay, to include such chapter titles, he would actually have to vaporize the math teacher. Or even see old ladies knitting. Or have God buy them cheeseburgers. Or battle a jerk relative.

    HERE BE SPOILERS

    The fact that the entire ‘big battle’ was changed from Ares to Luke was incredibly unfortunate. As MaryAnn said, it was very plain right from the get-go that Luke was the villain. In the book itself, I knew that something was up with him, but it wasn’t until shortly before the actual reveal that I really figured out that he was the Thief.

    As for the final battle itself, and any time that they used Hermes’ flying Chucks, I had to keep myself from groaning. In the books they’re very clear that Zeus is not pleased with Percy, and that Percy should not be in the air because that was Zeus’ domain. (Also, no one but Zeus was able to touch the master bolt.) Zeus would not have allowed two young demigods to fly about at the base of Mount Olympus, using his bolt, without interfering. The decision to add this was a rather silly one.

    As someone who studied the myths long before reading the Riordan books, I have to say I was disappointed with the portrayal of Persephone. In the books it’s made very clear that she is, as she should be, with her mother Demeter for the summer. And the pearls certainly weren’t because she likes to cheat! So… in the movie she’s… well, certainly not any sort of Persephone we’ve seen before. The only thing that made her screen time bearable was Coogan’s Hades. (And her cleavage, if you’re into that–which I’m not. Part of me wonders if Columbus didn’t get enough of Ms. Dawson after Rent. (And that’s another adaptation of his I will forever cringe at.))

    Though once again, I agree with Bluejay. Many of the small details that made the books so enjoyable are left on the wayside here. Charon was already mentioned, but the fact that the entrance to the Underworld is in a recording studio? Or all the little things they do to get from place to place? Pink poodles and zebras, for goodness sake! (They’re 12 in the books, they have to be more inventive than stealing a dead person’s truck.)

    And to me, it seemed that Chris Columbus didn’t really seem to have faith that the following books would get made into films. Otherwise Grover’s search for Pan surely would have gotten a mention (instead of saying he’s a “senior protector,”) Thalia’s tree would have been pointed out, Clarisse would have been at Camp, and most importantly Kronos’ story wouldn’t have been abandoned after the one mention at the beginning.

    Lastly: I don’t care who you are, God or mortal, if you’re gearing up for war, you don’t let one little detail stand in the way of all your plans coming to fruition. In this movie, the clouds and the seas are already brewing. All the Gods had gathered for the first time in years (instead of them meeting every six months like in the books.) Everyone is ready for war. Then the master bolt is back, and that’s it, meeting over, nothing else to say? For some reason I don’t see it working like that. At that point it would take more to have them back down.

    Anyway, I truly hope that they continue making these films, but I hope that either someone else takes over, or that Chris Columbus realizes that he needs to stay truer to the source material than he has been. The cast is good, but they need something better to work with next time.

  • Bluejay

    But Bluejay, to include such chapter titles, he would actually have to vaporize the math teacher. Or even see old ladies knitting. Or have God buy them cheeseburgers. Or battle a jerk relative.

    Yes. It’s unfortunate that those events weren’t in there. But even if they had stuck to the movie plot, adding in similar titles would have made it slightly more irreverent and interesting.

    Anyway, I truly hope that they continue making these films

    Having cutting out so many significant recurring elements, they’d have to do some major plot contortions to bring the movies back in line with the novels. They could always continue to disregard the novels, of course, though whether they do it to good or bad effect remains to be seen.

  • Lozateazer

    But even if they had stuck to the movie plot, adding in similar titles would have made it slightly more irreverent and interesting.

    Agreed 100%.

    And I do think the franchise can be saved, though I do wish they would do the major plot contortions. It would be hard, but feasible, and in my opinion the only way it would work.

  • Bluejay

    Hey Lozateazer: If you feel like getting even more infuriated, check out the interview with the screenwriter on AICN. Some choice quotes:

    Beaks: How much contact did you have with the author Rick Riordan?

    Titley: None. Once they started production, there was maybe a little more contact. But the thing about this film, the fan base kept growing and growing during the making of it – to the point where everybody started getting nervous. It was like, “Did we change too much? Did we leave something out that the fans really love?” Things like that. So I think during the production, Chris and the producers were in contact with him just to make sure that if they’re lucky enough to make more movies, certain things weren’t being cut out that could create problems later. But it was just to get his blessing overall, because he did create this world and these characters. I have not met him, but I would like to, though.

    Beaks: Did you find yourself playing favorites with the various figures from Greek mythology? Were there certain characters you just had to have in the film?

    Titley: Yes, and I think Rick Riordan did that as well. The characters that got cut out are lesser-known characters from Greek mythology who aren’t as exciting.

    Yeah, boring secondary characters like Dionysus the god of wine, madness and ecstasy, and Ares the god of war.

    He just didn’t have a clue.

    *fists in hair*

  • Lozateazer

    Oh, geez, *laughs* I don’t want to come off as super irritated, just frustrated that the movie didn’t live up to all it could be. It was an alright movie, but it wasn’t the movie I knew it could be.

    Yeah, boring secondary characters like Dionysus the god of wine, madness and ecstasy, and Ares the god of war.

    Yeah, I mean, who wants them around? It’s not like they’re part of the twelve Olympians or anything. The goddess of springtime and flowers is so much more exciting!

    Though admittedly I think that a lot of the reason that Dionysus was removed was because the age of the main characters being moved up, and therefor their maturity levels as well. The whole feel of camp changed to make it more of an intense training ground. Mr. D and the way he ran things just didn’t fit that vision. (Though thinking of Dionysus as not ‘adult’ enough just feels wrong to say.)

    It wasn’t right, but I think that could have been their reasoning.

    Ares though… No idea what they were thinking there. Were they thinking?

    Oh well. It made it to #2 this weekend, we’ll see how it holds up over the next few weeks.

  • cheezy peezy

    how are they just gonna leave out ares and the scene when percy fights ares.that is seriously messed up.

    another thing why did they switch percy’s and annabeth’s age to 17. why couldn’t they just leave it at 12. it doesn’t matter how old the actor is:they can just get a new actor.

    THEY MESSED UP THE MOVIE BADLY

  • cheezy peezy

    YOU SUCK DIRECTOR THAT DIRECTED THIS MOVIE

  • JohnnyInc

    The dialog was just too clunky. “My mother is the God of Knowledge and Battle Strategy.” wtf?

    — Spoilers Below —

    And the whole thing about how Percy had to be the thief because only one of the three main gods or their kids could steal the lighting. Which was not the case at all…

    And they never explained, what the hell is the point of the camp? Are they constantly under attack all the time? What is the point of fighting with swords when you can transform water into a weapon?

  • Percy’s best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson: Tooth Fairy, Tropic Thunder), a wisecracking oddball who turns out to be a satyr?

    In other words, he’s a stereotypical teenage boy?

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