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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