A film review by Craig J. Koban March 11, 2010
PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS:
THE LIGHTNING THIEF
2010, PG, 119 mins.
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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.