About one hour into Chris Columbus’ new teen adventure franchise in-the-failing Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, one of Mr. Jackson’s side-kicks desperately utters the phrase “Man, this is bad”.
I’d appreciated the heads up in the opening credits, numbskull.
Almost every review thus far has pointed out all of the way too obvious overlaps between the new Percy Jackson movie and those about British wiz kid Harry Potter – and not only due to the fact that the two first installments, before the maturing of both Potter and the series, were in fact directed by Columbus. In short, they’re both based on adventure novels for kids, they both have young men with scrawny black hair as their protagonists, Potter and Jackson both start out as clueless school kids with absent fathers, before realizing nothing is what it looks like, and that they both in fact have the weight of the world on their young shoulders. Cue training camp, laser quick learning of ropes & ultimate challenge between good and evil in company of new friends, (1 smart and 1 goofy, respectively).
Quick, silly recap: Percy Jackson has ADHD and dyslexia, hates school and has only one friend (with crutches, at that). His well-meaning mom keeps clinging to her abusive, sexist beer-monger excuse of a boyfriend, so there’s war at home, as well. Things change when Percy’s class take a field trip to a museum of Greek history, where Percy in a flash of understanding suddenly knows how to read the Greek alphabet. His sub teacher watches idly by as Percy gets this revelation, and starts the maddening story rollout strategy; she, who is originally some sort of strange, evil monster, tries to kill Percy and demands that he deliver back the lightning bolt she accuses him of having stolen from Zeus (who we, although not our young friend, already know is in fact is Percy’s uncle, because of an exquisitely bad prologue where human incarnations of Brothers and Old Dogs Zeus and Poseidon whisper gravely about war of the worlds unless said bolt is recaptured by evil sibling Hades. Then they theatrically burn a hole in a building for no apparent reason). Percy has of course done no such thing, but shows an impressive lack of ability to ask tough questions when under pressure. Therefore he is still the prime suspect of the great crime even after he throws his monster teacher out of a window. This forces Friend with Crutches to up the ante (and storytelling speed), and he teams up with wheelchaired Pierce Brosnan to take Percy to a training camp for sons and daughters of Gods (Demigods), the Pottery-named Half-Blood Camp. Oh, and Hades kills his mom along the way. Within minutes, miserable school kid Jackson becomes the hero of the day after winning a stupid 300-like war game with help from charismatic, Danish-looking teamster Luke and battling it out with capable sword-slinger Annabeth, the queen of Demigod campus. Then he gets bored, weeps of lack of parental care, leaves good sense and common wisdom behind and goes on a nonsensical field trip all across the US of A with Crutches and Queen to settle the torch mess with Zeus. Stupidity ensues.
If you don’t understand a living thing from the set up, I don’t blame you – you are probably better off not caring. That’s why I didn’t include other tidbits of information, like the fact that Crutches, when in Half-Blood Land, walks around on goats legs. Or that the Tepid Three are looking for green pearls to transport them closer to their goal, the Olympos. Or that Mrs. Jackson is not really dead, only used as bait by Hades to get Percy to man up for the challenge. Or… Whatever. You don’t need any more information – I’ve seen the whole thing play out, and even I don’t really get it. Worse, much worse: the Gruesome Threesome doesn’t seem to know, either. Hence Percy’s lack of curiosity for why he, of all people, is a Demigod, and why he, of all people, has to pick the fights no one else wants. When the masterplan behind the war-provoking is revealed, the logic behind is so bad you’ll be crying. Percy’s reaction? You’d think the question “why?” would pop up, right? Nah. Try something like “Um. Well, OK.” A kid with such a grueling lack of intellectual nosiness doesn’t deserve his luck.
Not everything is horrible with Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, although most, even the title, certainly is. The acting is decent. Logan Lerman, an object of love and adoration ever since his star role as leading Bobby MacCallister in 2004s short-lived but wonderful teen drama Jack & Bobby, deserves a long life on the big screen. He has shown considerable comedic skills in films like Meet Bill (2007) and several home grown YouTube-shorts with Bobby pal Dean Collins, but it breaks my heart to think that this was meant to be his big break. I still hope it is, I beg for young Logan to reject an offer to do an eventual sequel. In Percy Jackson he is easily capable, but misplaced. Just don’t do it. The other youngsters do bland performances, except for Brandon T. Jackson, who plays the comic relief character Grover (Crutches) with all of the subtlety of Marlon Wayans impersonating Eddie Murphy impersonating his role as Donkey in Shrek as a human being. Very few people go to a kids flick with monsters and lightning bolts expecting to see subtlety, but please. At least Steve Coogan does a brilliant caricature of Hades as a worn-out heavyrocker from the 70s, with usual British wit.
That isn’t an especially clever twist on the bad-guy routine, though. Just think about it. Eragon had Robert Carlyle as the cunning Brit mad-man, Potter obviously has had plenty of them, and even the otherwise unimpressive Twilight: New Moon casted a deliciously campy Michael Sheen as the mean Pope. Why can’t we have a cruel American to stir it up for once? I blame George W. Bush. After W’s disastrous tenure in the White House, even the movie-wathing American kid has tired of seeing their countrymen as villains. It sort of makes sense. But it’s not interesting any more.
Rick Riordan, the author behind the Percy Jackson books, has churned out at least six or seven installments of the series. That means the way is paved for a lots of full length adventures, if the movie performs well enough at the box office. That is a truly disturbing thought. In the meantime, leading man Lerman has mused loudly about his wish to be the new Spiderman, after Tobey Maguire declined to do another Peter Parker movie. A reasonable wish, I might add. If Logan Lerman decides to give the superhero thing another spin, it would suit him to play a character that at least cares enough to wonder why he should bother with the whole saving the world-business. If that results in The Lightning Thief being the stand alone-failure of this Harry Potteragon-franchise, it would do him –and us- a world of good. That’s worth caring about.
MOVIE OF NOTE:
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief premiered in Norway February 12