It’s hard for a fledgling novel adaptation to take a chance on the big screen, especially without getting flack for being a cheap imitation of a bigger franchise. Said stigma follows Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief based on the successful children’s series by Rick Riordan. While having many similarities to the established Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson is an entertaining romp focusing on Greek mythology that will please Potter fans as well as fantasy audiences.
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) believes himself to be a fairly average kid. Living with his put-upon mother (Catherine Keener) and his angry stepfather (Joe Pantoliano), Percy also copes with dyslexia and ADHD. When he’s attacked by his substitute English at the Metropolitan Museum of Art he learns that he’s the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and is sent to a training camp where the other progeny of the Gods, called Demi-Gods live and hone their skills. Amongst all this a battle is brewing between Poseidon and Zeus (Sean Bean) after the latter’s mythic lightening bolt is stolen and Percy is the prime suspect. With his mother’s life in jeopardy and a storm growing that could wipe out humanity, it’s up to Percy to clear his name and prevent the gods from battling.
Percy Jackson could be called Harry Potter and Greek mythology, and there’s nothing wrong with that as director Chris Columbus, who ironically helmed the first two films in the Harry Potter canon, brings the same whimsy and magic from that popular franchise to Percy Jackson. Percy is an average boy who learns he’s the son of a Greek god and it leads to adventure. There’s nothing surprising or unique about this movie, it’s a standard Hero’s Journey, but you start to just sit back and watch Percy and his friends visit the Greek gods and attempt to sniff out who is the nefarious lightning thief. The fun is all contained in the gods themselves and this movie is really Greek mythology 101 as all the highlights of the stories are present from Zeus and Hades down to Medusa and Persephone. The special effects of the Hydra and the Underworld look fantastic and are just the right touch of scary without being too overwhelming for children.
The cast in this is also surprisingly strong for the most part consisting of the right blends of unknowns and well-regarded stars. Logan Lerman continues to impress in his career and he makes Percy likeable, yet still young enough to make teenage mistakes. He never plays the role too cocky to make audiences think he’s annoying, and he’s a strong leader for the group. Newcomer Alexandra Daddario is also capable as the strong Annabeth, daughter of Athena. She’s a beautiful girl and dominates when she’s playing the off-spring of the goddess of wisdom. While she doesn’t have too many scenes to shine, she’s fantastic. The most entertaining of the gods have to be Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson as Hades and Persephone, respectively. Coogan plays Hades like an aging rock-star and Dawson’s Persephone is a desperate housewife with a love of men. They don’t have the most engaging characters and they’re not deep, but adults will find them the funniest bits of the movie.
For all its strengths, there are tons of ways Percy Jackson and the Olympians fails, mainly due to Columbus overstretching to make this like Harry Potter. The basic set-up is very J.K. Rowling all the way down to the journey he takes. One could say that’s how the novels are set up but according to lovers of the novel this is already heavily changed and a lot of it seems to be in the attempts to make another Harry Potter character. It’s also interesting how little of the film is about finding the actual lightening thief. In a two hour movie, about an hour and a half is devoted to Percy and crew getting to the Underworld to talk to Hades, so they go on a journey to find Persephone’s pearls. It seems like Columbus tries so hard to squeeze in all the gods they overshadow the story of the thief. There’s massive amounts of product placement in this movie that becomes overbearing including pointless scenes with Call of Duty playing in the background, and Percy using an iPhone to catch Medusa’s reflection. There’s also a very long-winded scene with the group in a Las Vegas club (complete with bar and dancing girls), apparently under the spell of a drug that has similar effects as marijuana.
It’s also sad to see how the big named stars are wasted. Bean, McKidd and Melina Kanakaredes are pointless, the latter only in the film for about two minutes. Pierce Brosnan is also downright awful as a centaur teacher of Percy’s. On that front it’s odd how well the Hydra effects are, yet Brosnan as a centaur and Brandon T. Jackson as a satyr looked really cheesy.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians is far from perfect, but if you’re looking for something new in the fantasy vein and want to be entertained then give it a shot. It tries way too hard to be Harry Potter, but it’s a worthy effort nonetheless.
Final Grade: C+
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief