A film review by Craig J. Koban March 11, 2010

PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF j
½ 

2010, PG, 119 mins.

 

Logan Lerman: Percy / Brandon T. Jackson: Grover / Alexandra Daddario: Annabeth / Sean Bean: Zeus / Pierce Brosnan: Chiron / Steve Coogan: Hades / Rosario Dawson: Persephone / Catherine Keener: Sally / Kevin McKidd: Poseidon

Directed by Chris Columbus / Written by Craig Titley, based on the book by Rick Riordan

To fully quote its ridiculously long-winded title, PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF opens with a scene that is played with such uproarious solemnity by the actors that it approaches high camp. 

Just consider it:  At the top of the Empire States Building we see the two most famous Greek gods, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and Zeus (Sean Bean) gathering for a meeting that will decide the fate of the free world.  Why the Empire States Building, you may ask?  Well, it seems that Mount Olympus (yes, the one that is home to the Twelve Olympians, the principle gods of the Hellenistic world) is actually located at a secret level of the Empire States Building that is definitely not accessible via its elevator and definitely not viewable by mortal tourists.  

Anyhoo’, the two gods – decked out in modern-day street garb – are concerned that the oncoming storm clouds have no lightning.  This is really embarrassing for Zeus, seeing as he is the king of the gods and of the sky and thunder, which makes one wonder why he could not make lightning.  Nonetheless, his “master bolt” has, alas, been stolen right under his omnipotent feet, but Zeus believes that Poseidon’s son has stolen it.  Poseidon professes that his son is innocent, but Zeus grows impatient.  He gives his fellow god an ultimatum: He must return his   “master bolt” intact…within 14 earth days…otherwise an all out god-on-god orgy of pain will commence, probably ending the world as we know it.  Oh, the epic battle royale will commence at midnight (New York time, I am assuming).  Damn those gods…they have such strict time schedules. 

PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS – based on the first of a five book series by novelist Rick Riordan – begins in such an unintentionally hilarious and hammy manner that it's sure is hard to take the rest of the film seriously at all.  The film is not just silly, but stupendously silly, so much so that it often requires Zeus-like powers of fortitude to sit through without rolling one’s eyes in mocking disdain.  Now, it certainly does take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to allow for your immersion into a fantasy that morphs elements of Greek mythology with the real world.  Unfortunately, too much of PERCY JACKSON is painfully high on clunky exposition, head-straining dialogue, overblown performances, and, yes, a considerable amount of laughing at the final product and not with it.  It’s clear that the writer of the source novel and the filmmakers here desperately hope for this to be another HARRY POTTER (to be true, this film slavishly uses that film’s template to the point of plagiarism), but there is no doubt that PERCY JACKSON is a poor man’s HARRY POTTER: It's a calibrated mixture of CGI-enhanced spectacle, PG-rated action and swashbuckling, teenage angst, and lot of eye rolling, seat squirming, and frequent watch checking…especially for those over the age of 10. 

If you thought that preposterous introductory scene was the icing on the cake, then think again.  PERCY JACKSON might be the only fantasy film in movie history that has a teen protagonist that is both (a) a demigod (son to a Greek God father and human mother) and (b) a sufferer of ADHD and chronic dyslexia.  Yup, poor Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a troubled, misunderstood kid that battles with his learning disabilities on a daily basis while trying to figure out why his mother (an utterly wasted and disinterested Catherine Keener) refuses to dump her obnoxious and alcoholic boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano, another wasted actor here).  Percy does have one unique gift, though: he can breathe underwater for nearly ten minutes without even appearing modestly winded when he comes up for air.  Now, world record for this feat is 11 minutes, so you would think that Percy at one point would have approached the people of Guinness with this extraordinary gift, but I digress. 

Things start to go fishy for young Percy when he is attacked by his math teacher that turns into a humanoid bat-like creature.  Thankfully, his other teacher, the wheel-chair bound Mr. Brunner (Pierce Bronson, sporting a hideously phony looking beard and wig) comes to his rescue.  Now, at this point Percy discovers that he is the son of Poseidon himself, master of the sea and earthquakes, which would certainly shed some light on his underwater breathing prowess.  Mr. Brunner further reveals to Percy that he is not just a cripple, but actually a centaur (half man, half horse) that decides to take the very confused teen to Camp Half Blood, which is a magical Hogwarts-esque training ground for other kids that have been the by-product of Greek Gods and human hanky panky.  Camp Half Blood is about 1/100th as magical as Potter’s Hogwarts, since it appears that it is nothing more than a field outside of Long Island. 

As Percy begins his training he is befriended by a satyr named Grover (played in an obnoxious performance of black sidekick stereotypes by Brandon T. Jackson, which essentially involves him saying wacky things like “dat’s nasty” or “yo” or “what’s up,” which seems a bit too hip hop for a typical half boy, half goat creature).  Percy also locks eyes with Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the daughter of Athena, who is very long on looks and very lethal with a sword.  Just as Percy begins to adapt to the fantastical world that Mr. Brunner has introduced him to, he discovers that his mother has actually been taken hostage by Hades and taken to the underworld (Percy was unable to subdue one of Hades’ minotaurs with his sword, which is actually a pen).  In order to save his mother - and halt the potential god war that will commence in 14 days and at midnight…New York time - Percy and his two companions decide to take matters into their own hands and try to not only find a way to the underworld of Hades to rescue dear old mom, but also to find out who had the Hercules-sized gonads needed to steal Zeus’ “master bolt.” 

Okay, perhaps you are thinking that I am being way, way too hard on PERCY JACKSON.  To be true, the 8-year-old in me was interested and invested in Percy’s quest, but the 35-year-old critic in me was constantly slapping my knee with sarcastic glee at the film.  There were just far too many moments that I laughed hysterically when I probably should not have, like one daft moment when another character tells Percy that his dyslexia is not a curse, but a “gift” that he can use to his advantage (apparently, there are no special education instructors at Camp Half Breed).  I also howled over at more of the ridiculous elements of the plot, like why, for instance, would Greek Gods, as powerful as they are, decide to go down to earth, find a mate, do the no-pants dance, have kids, and then abandon them altogether.  The fate that Poseidon left Percy and his mother in is kind of cruel, especially since his mom is in an abusive relationship.  You would think that the God of sea and thunder could launch an intervention and drown the inebriated and abusive bum that his former flame lives with, but Greek God code forbids contact with or interference with any offspring that a god has.  Greek God rules suck.  If that’s not inane enough, then think on this: how could the God of gods allow his master bolt to be stolen from him?  And why have Mount Olympus on the secret 600th Floor of the Empire States building?  

And why midnight…New York time? 

The performances range for serviceable to embarrassing.   Lerman, who looks a shocking amount like Zac Efron, has a cocky bravado, but perhaps a bit too much cockiness to allow you to feel any amount of sympathy for him and his plight.  A little bit of humility and emotional vulnerability would have benefited the character greatly.  The Greek gods, on the other hand, are total posers and stiffs, which is disappointing seeing the typical strong actors portraying them.  Bronson has never looked stiffer while giving inadvertently hilarious line readings as Percy's centaur-mentor (that, and he looks like a total horse’s ass…as a man that has a horse’s ass).  Sean Bean as Zeus also is high on cringe-worthiness, spouting out perfunctory, doomsday-inspired lines with the cryptic authority of a really lame SNL sketch.  Uma Thurman also shows up as the waspy-voiced Medusa who is a bit more digestible for her maniacal overkill.  Only two other actors seem to be completely in on the fact that they are playing clownish, one-note characters: Steve Coogan is sly and convincingly devilish as the glam-rocker adorned Hades, as is Rosario Dawson as Persephone, who slithers around with the a seductively cheesy vitality.  These two actors have their fingers on the pulse of the purer cornball elements of the film; everyone else, alas, does not. 

PERCY JACKSON was directed by Chris Columbus, whom you may recall directed the first HARRY POTTER film, so comparisons between that film and this one grow all the more potent.  His direction is stale, flat, and phoned in (although, he does generate one moment of visual invention when Percy makes innovative use of his i-Phone to battle Medusa at one point).  Even though I have had my share of problems with the POTTER franchise on the whole, those films at least where visual dynamos compared to PERCY JACKSON (the visual effects here are adequate, if not a bit muddled and haphazard in execution and appearance) and, most importantly, the film sacrifices one integral ingredient: it lacks magic, in large dosages.  PERCY JACKSON is a long, overblown, clunky, and uninspired bit of bait and switch.  Those expecting to find the next HARRY POTTER will demand a refund, but for those that want a good, hearty laugh for nearly two hours, the film is side-splittingly silly.  I mean…really silly.  The makers hope that this entry is the kick start to a whole new franchise, but let’s hope it stops with Roman numeral number one.  I am sure the gods would agree.

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