As the Harry Potter franchise heads toward its end, Hollywood is desperately seeking the next big franchise. 20th Century Fox apparently believes that the next big thing is Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a book series by Rick Riordan. Fox has hired Chris Columbus, the director of the first two Harry Potter movies, to kick off the franchise, and the result is about what you'd expect: it's good, but could have been better.
In Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, we are introduced to the title character, a typical young man (played by Logan Lerman, who may or may not be the next Spider-Man) who suffers from ADHD and dyslexia. His one skill seems to be that he can hold his breath underwater for a really long time. After an attack by his substitute teacher, who turns into a ghoulish flying creature, Percy soon learns that he is the son of Poseidon and that his uncle, Zeus, believes that he, a demigod, has stolen his lightning stick (remember, this is a PG-rated movie). Percy realizes that it is upon him and him alone to clear his name, return the lightning to Zeus and save his mother from Hades before the world is destroyed by a civil war among the Gods.
Percy Jackson is a fast-paced, entertaining and easy-to-watch adventure film that adults will enjoy, but 13-year old boys will love. Take that as you will. The movie has plenty of action, lots of strange creatures (including Hydra, Furies and Medusa, played by Uma Thurman) and the main character gets to utilize some cool superpowers, the combination of which should satisfy most kids and teenagers with short attention spans. The movie's brisk pace and mildly engaging plot won't drive parents to lobotomy, and that's a good thing.
Unfortunately, Percy Jackson is no Harry Potter. Columbus, as should be expected, has made a perfectly acceptable and ordinary film, nothing more, nothing less. For what it is, it works, but it could have been so much more. The action scenes are uninspired; Columbus fails to build suspense leading into the sequences, resulting in some entertaining but hardly engaging moments. The movie lacks the gritty glossiness that has blessed the Harry Potter franchise since Columbus left; that same styling would have done wonders for this larger-than-life tale.
The real problem is the script, which also fails to take advantage of the larger-than-life story. If anything, Percy Jackson moves along too quickly, glossing over important development in favor of delivering fast-paced adventure. The picture would have benefited from an additional 20 minutes devoted to fleshing out the characters and the story. The problems begin in the first scene, which has Zeus and Poseidon outlining the conflict Percy will face over the next couple of hours; unfortunately, that means the audience knows much more than the lead characters for much of the movie. We're not allowed to learn and grow with Percy and the others. Screenwriter Craig Titley seems so anxious to dive into the beef of the story that he skips over the little things early on. Percy alludes to being a loser and struggling through life, and yet none of these challenges are explained except when required. Up until the final scene, where Percy gets to confront his father, I had no clue he had daddy issues.
Logan Lerman does a good job in the lead, but the supporting cast struggles with the shallow screenplay. Alexandra Daddario shows potential, but is extremely underutilized. Though her character is the daughter of Athena and touts her wisdom and strategic capabilities, not once does she get to utilize her God-like attributes during the film. Brandon T. Jackson acts like the token black guy, spouting out stereotypical sentences that aren't nearly as funny as they're meant to be. Jake Abel plays the shockingly unremarkable villain.
The characters, villains and situations all lack the weight that I was expecting. Compared to Harry Potter, its lack of a significant villain or growing sense of dread leaves Percy Jackson feeling superficial, ordinary and small, words that shouldn't be applied to a movie about demigods. Still, for what it's worth, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief has enough fun moments to satisfy.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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