Percy Jackson & The Olympians
What It Is
Like many high school students, Percy (Logan Lerman) is restless. He feels distracted in class, especially because his dyslexia makes reading a chore, frustrated that his mother, Sally (Catherine Keener), endures verbal abuse by her husband, the ignominiously named Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano). He’s also tired of Sally telling him, “Some day it’ll all make sense.”
That day is today, at the beginning of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. First, Percy finds out why he’s so fond of water (he sits for long minutes at the bottom of the pool, “the only place I can think”), namely he’s the son of Poseidon. Second, he discovers that his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is really his protector and a satyr, to boot. And third, he’s pleasantly surprised to find out he’s a demigod, apparently “hardwired” with awesome swordfighting skills and the ability to read ancient Greek. So, when he and Grover head off to Camp Half Blood (the term for a community whose brilliant number includes someone now “White House famous,” according to Grover), Percy is more prepared than he imagined to train up for a brewing confrontation between his father (Kevin McKidd) and his uncle, Zeus (Sean Bean).
But first, the boys must take a roadtrip to Hell, where still another uncle, Hades (Steve Coogan), is holding Sally. Teaming up with Athena’s daughter, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), they take off with a map and some godly gizmos in hand (a special shield, high-top Chucks with wings, daggers and bows and arrows). They’re on a deadline, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take their time at each of three stops, as they encounter monsters and other diversions, including Medusa (Uma Thurman) in New Jersey, a hydra in Nashville, and a lulling lotusland in Vegas. Along the way, Percy hones his water-wielding talents, flirts with Annabeth, and comes to appreciate the burden of godly obligations. All this prepares him to meet his long-absent father, Poseidon.
Why It’s Fun
Any movie that wants to interest kids in Greek mythology is doing something right. If the stories get a little scrambled in this telling—as Percy runs into foes already faced down by Hercules and Perseus—they’re terrific stories even in these contrived variations. And some of the players are obviously having a wonderful time, especially Rosario Dawson as the angry kidnapped wife Persephone, and Coogan as her wily husband Hades (their late, very entertaining scene helps to pick up the pace before the big showdown).
As the overlong title reveals, this first Percy Jackson movie means to jumpstart a franchise. This might explain the assorted stars making brief appearances, from Pierce Brosnan as Percy’s mentor, Chiron (an awkwardly CGI-ed centaur), to Melina Kanakaredes as Athena (apparently cast for her hair, she speaks two lines, maybe). Drawing from young-reader book series by Rick Riordan, the movie is both slow-moving choppy. The heroes camp training sequence is especially poky (and noticeably modeled after Hogwarts), though it is here where Percy also meets Luke (Jake Abel), suitably mischievous and tech-savvy son of Hermes. This troublemaker helps emphasize the lesson that following the rules—even ancient, not very smart rules—is what Percy does best.
Who’s Going To Love It
The movie offers action scenes for multiple ages and tastes, from kids who like Minotaurs to those fond of cars crashing. (That said, an early scene where Percy appears to lose his mother to a very loud and hard-hitting monster might worry younger viewers, as might a scene showing souls burning in Hell—they’re abstract and fiery, but moan and writhe as if in pain.) The assaults by all sorts of creatures are boisterous, the rustic look of the heroes camp is quaint, and the combination of level-headedness, independence, and athleticism displayed by Annabeth is gratifying. Her smartness recalls the story of her mother, Athena, goddess of wisdom and justice, who sprang full-grown from her father Zeus’ head (this after he complained of a serious headache!).
If the special effects aren’t always so special, the young stars are consistently charming. And if the threeway friendship among Percy, Grover, and Annabeth looks an awful lot like The Mod Squad, well, that’s just another instructive and long-lived mythology that helps complicate into this mix. The soundtrack is often too obvious (when they start their journey to Hades, you hear “Highway to Hell”) and sometimes too apt (when the kids are entranced at the Lotus Casino, you hear Lady Gaga, music that’s all about dulling the senses.)
The movie’s cleverest bits occur when old and new collide—when Percy uses his shiny iPod as the mirror to outwit Medusa, or when Annabeth, after spotting Percy’s face on a TV report, notes that they need to hurry along, “before Homeland Security shows up.” It’s good that Percy and company live in our own world, and helps to differentiate them from the other Harry Potter wannabes.
What To Be Aware Of
Percy is, of course, the all-American demigod, cute, floppy-haired, and bright. His white-male brilliance tends to be contrasted with his friends’ antics, especially those of Grover. More sexually experienced and inclined to talk about it, he’s a typically randy satyr, happy to chase after any girl who smiles at him. While the movie makes fun of this (he shows up in one scene wearing pimpish gear, girls on both arms), it also treads near to some race stereotyping with this joke—especially since Grover is also saddled with some too-familiar vernacular exclamations (“Yo! I got this!”).
Percy and Annabeth’s parent-child relations are as complicated as they are for Harry Potter: both resent their missing parents, and both come to some sort of reconciliation with very flawed adults (adults who happen also to be giants and immortal, as well as possessed of earth-shaking superpowers). (The movie also leaves out the familiar plot point that Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon at the time of her death, thus ensuring that Percy doesn’t have to kill his half-sibling.)
The male Olympians tend to be warlike—they fight among themselves more than they play nicely. And while Percy enjoys the thrills and battles of his journey, he sees better than his dad that war is generally a bad idea. This signals a generational shift that the original Greek myths didn’t quite anticipate. It’s a welcome update, and a good topic for kids and their parents to discuss.
6 out of 10
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Logan Lerman, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Catherine Keener, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Rosario Dawson, Uma Thurman
Studio: Fox 2000 Pictures
US Premiere: February 12, 2010
UK Premiere: February 12, 2010