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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (**1/2)



Gods and Monsters

The name "Harry Potter" will be name dropped a lot as I discuss Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief; one gets the sense the filmmakers welcome and encourage it. They're certainly are not shying away from the blatant similarities. 

Like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson is based on a best-selling series of books aimed towards children. Like Harry Potter, Chris Columbus helms the motion picture adaptation of the first novel. Like Harry Potter, the protagonist is a boy of great power who battles magical opposition with the aid of two stalwart chums, a boy sidekick and a plucky girl, while surrounded by fine British actors who take a backseat and mainly provide exposition. Unlike Harry Potter, however, Percy Jackson lacks the depth and thorough world/character building found in the works of JK Rowling. Also, I never wanted to kill Ron Weasley as much as I wanted to kill that satyr who's Percy Jackson's best friend.

Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd - forever Lucius Vorenus of Rome) and mortal woman Catherine Keener.  He discovers he's the son of Poseidon after he's attacked by a teacher at his school, who turns out to be a monstrous Fury, and that's quickly followed up by him learning his crippled best friend is a satyr and his crippled Greek mythology teacher Pierce Brosnan is a centaur.  (I have to say, I had a really hard time accepting James Bond, 007 with half a horse body.)  

After killing the Minotaur without much trouble, Percy is immediately whisked off to Hogwarts School of -- I mean some sort of summer camp that turns out to be the home, school, and training ground for all of the Demi-Gods; the children of the gods sired whenever they've shuffled down to the mortal coil from Mount Olympus to plow the fields of mortal women. Percy is told he's unique because "it's rare to see a child of one of the big three [Zeus, Poseidon, Hades]", ignoring how Zeus banged human women all the time. There are dozens of teenage Demi-Gods in the camp, so it seems like the gods did a lot of human fucking in the early 90's. One thing all the Demi-Gods share in common is that they've all never met their godly parents. Zeus laid down some law about gods never being allowed near their offspring, so the kids are all bitter at their deadbeat god-dads and god-moms.

Like the denizens of Hogwarts, Percy gets immediately involved in a private sport, Capture the Flag, where the first one to catch the golden snitch wins 150 points -- oops, got mixed up again. Unlike Harry Potter and his Wizarding chums, the Demi-Gods have a lot of modern technology in their open air tents - PS3s, flatscreen HDTVs, Internet access, so at the least the Demi-Gods are hip to the modern world and are not the completely ignorant and worthless fringe-dwellers Wizards are to the Muggle world.  

Percy is sequestered in the camp because the gods all think he stole Zeus' thunderbolt, "the most powerful (yet poorly guarded, apparently) weapon ever created."  Zeus (Sean Bean!) and Poseidon are about to go to war over this thunderbolt; apparently the gods have no time or inclination to do a little investigating before moving headlong into global supernatural conflagration. (But maybe the gods were just bored and looking for some violence to balance out the regular sex with humans. What do the gods do all day long? The movie never says.)

When Hades appears in the campfire looking for Percy Jackson, Percy finds out his mother is being held prisoner in the Underworld and decides he has to go free her. Luke, the son of Hermes, gives him winged Chuck Taylors, a magic shield to go along with the magic sword Brosnan gave him, and a (Marauder's) Map that will tell him how to get to the Three Broomsticks -- sorry, I meant where to find three magic pearls that will get Percy and his friends out of the Underworld after they save Percy's mom.

The movie then plays out as a road trip for Percy, Annabeth, the hot and fit Demi-Goddess daughter of Athena, and Grover the Satyr, probably the most unfunny motormouth sidekick since Jar Jar Binks. The three Demi-Gods run into Medusa in New Jersey (Uma Thurman, playing a little too similar to her turn as Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin), defeat a multi-headed Hydra Monster in Nashville, and almost succumb to all of the temptations in Las Vegas when they're trapped in the Casino of Lotus Eaters. 

Finally, after acquiring all the pearls, the Demi-Gods head into Hades, rescue Percy's mother, and make it to Olympus to prevent the War of the Gods. Along the way, they find out who the Lightning Thief really is. This is supposed to be a mystery that drives the story, but the true identity of the Lightning Thief isn't something the Demi-Gods think much about and the movie mostly forgets the mystery plot until the answer is suddenly blurted out.

The acting by the young leads is no great shakes.  Percy is played by Logan Lerman, who looks like a younger version of Boone from Lost. His main speeds are petulant and indifferent; occasionally he's manic. When Percy's mother is seemingly killed by the Minotaur, he's pretty non-plussed about it. Upon meeting the full assembly of Greek gods in the climax, Percy's reaction is no reaction.  No wonder, no curiosity, no awe.Upon careful consideration, I don't think I liked Percy Jackson very much.

I know I didn't like Grover the Satyr. Brandon T. Jackson, who plays Grover, looks like a young Mos Def and delivers an endless array of unfunny quips in a never-ending barrage. A running joke is made about how horny Grover is, including his galalvanting with siren prostitutes in Vegas and getting deflowered by Persephone (Rosario Dawson) in the Underworld. When he gets back, he has "grown his horns". This movie is for kids, right?

Alexandra Daddario, who plays Annabeth, has movie star physical presence and incredibly luminous blue eyes. (I liked how the girl with the incredible eyes fought the Hydra by shooting arrows into its eyes. As Dwight Schrute once said, "The eyes are the groin of the face. I must do something to the eyes!")  Annabeth is supposed to be wise, being Athena's daughter and all, but she's only as smart as the movie needs her to be from scene to scene.  For some reason these three Greek Demi-Gods had no idea who Charon the Boatman to Hades was. Percy's relationship with Annabeth is kept completely chaste; he doesn't even get a kiss, though it's not hard to read into the subtext of their sword dueling.

As a lifelong lover of Greek mythology and stories of gods, heroes, monsters, tragedy, it's hard for me to dislike Percy Jackson. I do dislike much of the execution of the material. The screenplay feels dumbed down and the characters underwritten. The lead protagonists don't come off as distinct characters and Percy doesn't inspire much empathy or confidence. Whenever the veteran actors like Bean, Brosnan, and McKidd are on the screen, you can sense them restraining themselves, lest they act circles around the kids and blow them off of the screen.

Columbus mainly delivers on the action sequences. The special effects with the snakes of Medusa's hair and the Hydra monster were well done. I particularly enjoyed the climactic battle between Percy and Hermes' son Luke (he's the Lightning Thief! I blurted it out just like the movie did!) in the skies above New York City, which brought back fond memories of Superman fighting General Zod, Non, and Ursa in Superman II.  Although, when Percy fully utilizes his water-based superpowers, his abilities seem so much more powerful and overwhelming than what Zeus' lightning bolt can do. 

If the Percy Jackson franchise must ape Harry Potter, the best thing that can happen would be for Chris Columbus to vacate the director's chair as soon as possible so that Alfonso Cuaron can take over.  Percy Jackson solemnly swearing he's up to no good would only mean good things.