Rapid Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians – The Lightning Thief
I teach 9th grade Communication Arts (English),for those of you who don’t know me personally, and the Percy Jackson series of books by Rick Riordan have changed my life. Yep – I mean it quite literally. I’ve been teaching The Odyssey by Homer for ten years, but it wasn’t until this year that many of my students already knew the basic players of Greek mythology. Why? Because Percy knows them, of course. Percy battles many of the monsters and maidens Odysseus himself encounters in the epic, and there’s nothing 9th graders love more than a little violence. Much like the Twilight series, Percy’s adventures are commonly read by many a student, which is a wonderful phenomenon to see.
The books by Riordan begin with the tale The Lightening Thief, and so does the movie franchise. In the vein of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is an origin story, and has many of the inherent flaws of setting up such a complex character’s background and woes. Chris Columbus (in no great coincidence) helms Percy’s first film adventure, and he was also the director of the first two Harry Potter movies. While the first two Harry Potter films are perhaps the two weakest in the series, it is not entirely Columbus’s fault. He aims both those films and Percy’s first adventure at that pre-teen market which is so hard to please. They want to be treated like grown ups (hence the showy, fake violence and a little non-threatening romance), but also want a happy ending and all loose ends tied up in a neat two hours. This is often not satisfying enough for us grownups in the theater.
Yet, where Columbus used his skills to make the first two Harry Potters shine with the innocence of Harry’s personal discovery of his own destiny, Percy Jackson’s story, alas, gets short shrift in the heart department.
Unfortunately, Columbus has stripped Riordan’s vision of all that made Percy’s world unique, amusing and captivating. He leaves out key players, skimps on the CGI when it would have benefitted the scenes the most, and boils the plot down to a swords and sandals cliche.
Percy Jackson is played by Logan Lerman, who at 17 is WAY too old to be portraying Percy in this first saga. Columbus has no doubt upped the ages of the players to try and capture the Twilight series’ thunder (no pun intended), but one wonders – why? Alexandra Daddario, who plays Percy’s sidekick (and eventual love interest) Annabeth is 23. Yikes. Much like the teens who never grew old on 90210, I expect we are not supposed to notice such things, but it is a little jarring. Even some of my students who had seen the previews for the film commented, “Percy is HOT – but isn’t he supposed to be, like, 12?” (for the record, he IS supposed to be 12 in the first book).
On the bright side, Columbus knows that the Greek pantheon of gods, goddesses and monsters must of course be played by Britain’s finest selection of scene-chewing thespians, which includes such stars as Sean Bean (Zeus), Pierce Brosnan (Chiron), and Kevin McKidd (of Rome fame) as Percy’s father, Poseidon.
If you cannot stomach a permanent sense of suspension of disbelief, Percy’s adventures are not for you. He is a demi-god – half human and half god – the son of Poseidon who once had a beach-side romance with his mother (played by Catherine Keener, a waste of an interesting actress). Percy soon discovers that the gods of Mount Olympus are alive and interfering with the struggles of man. For the most part, we average plebian humans are completely unaware of the existence of said gods (despite the fact that the entrance to Mt. Olympus can be found at the top of the Empire State building). Oh – and the baddies don’t like the pesky demi-gods too much. Yet, the movie once again inexplicably leaves out the entire (and central) reason why these gods are fighting in the first place. Here, to the screenwriters, I say “tsk, tsk”.
Percy, once he discovers his unusual genetic history (maybe the fact that he could hold his breath underwater for over ten minutes wasn’t a strong enough clue), is sent to a day camp for other demi-gods, where he discovers his new existence is under fire from some very ancient bickering between the top gods. Percy is believed by Zeus to be the lightning thief, and must set out on a journey to re-capture the bolt from the true criminal (in part to provide something for Percy to do, and in part to save his mom). Zeus gets cranky when he can’t hurl the darn thing. This assignment is, of course, merely an excuse for Percy to get the lay of the land. He battles, quarrels with his new-found friends, and for the most part, works his way through the cliches of a hero’s quest.
Still, parts of this adaptation confused me. Columbus has upped the sex appeal and innuendo where it makes no sense to do so. The Lotus Casino, in the movie, is chock full of undulating vixens, pop music and drug overtones, whereas this scene was a video arcade and a lesson in sloth in the books. This is only one example of where Columbus and his screenwriter choose to alter events in the books for the worse. Dumbing down the books in favor of aging the characters is an unforgivably bizarre decision.
Columbus also leaves out much of the charm of Camp Half -Blood, which in the novels was a personalized haven where each cabin reflected its god/goddess owners. Poseidon’s cabin inthe books was awash with sea life and the walls moved with the vision of waves and sand. In the movie, it is merely a wooden cabin on a lake with a few tridents thrown in for winks. What an opportunity lost.
The actors are all game, and it won’t surprise or stun anyone reading this review that there will be no doubt be a sequel. Percy‘s FX are nothing to write home about, and the acting is marginal at best. Of the “young” actors, only Jake Abel as Luke, Percy’s camp mate (who will become vitally important in future installments) makes an impression. He’s one to watch.
The films last 2o minutes are the only true saving grace, with Hades (Steve Coogan) and his abused wife Persephone (a sultry Rosario Dawson) empowering the film’s only amusing and visually memorable sequence.
Overall, Percy does not succeed in capturing the “lightning” of Riordan’s charming books. It’s a decent way to spend a few hours if you can’t get in to see another movie. Just don’t come to the theater expecting, well – an Odyssey.
Overall Grade: D +