Directed by: Chris Columbus (I Love You Beth Cooper)
Starring: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean
I don’t think anyone involved in the making of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is trying to hide the fact that this is another attempt at a Harry Potter-like teen-fantasy cash cow. The plots aren’t all that dissimilar—normal kid enters a world of magic and adventure—and putting Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter flicks, at the helm seems like nothing more than a way to connect Percy Jackson to J.K. Rowling’s already established film franchise.
Unfortunately, Percy Jackson lacks the scope of the Potter movies, which—despite their ability to stand alone as autonomous films—taken together, make up one long, sprawling story. Percy Jackson, on the other hand, is much more self-contained, feeling more like a single, solitary movie than the jumping-off point for a franchise. I’m not sure anyone is to blame for this, or if it’s even really a criticism, but for a movie that so much wants to be the new Harry Potter, it’s competing against its own stacked deck of expectations.
Even though Columbus’ Potter films remain the weakest of the bunch, he’s not to blame in Percy Jackson. Really, he has made a professional—if not stylistically drab—movie. No, the blame should be left at the feet of screenwriter Craig Titley (Cheaper By the Dozen 2), who has created the basics for a film with little depth. What we have is little more than a teen-empowerment fantasy. Maybe your dyslexia or ADHD or even your chauvinistic stepfather are all symptoms of you actually being the son of a god—at least, this is the basic conceit the film works on. Mild-mannered, occasionally awkward teen Percy Jackson (a sometimes charming Logan Lerman, Gamer) finds out he’s the offspring of the god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd, Made of Honor) and thus imbued with magical powers and the title of demigod.
Within the film, this means Percy is whisked away to a world of wholesale CGI bombardment and modernized Greek mythology (the lotus-eaters are holed up in a casino and Medusa (Uma Thurman) owns a gardening store). In truth, the selling point of the film is its constant parade of effects-heavy set pieces. The film works best in this regard when it’s trying its damnedest to imitate a Molly Hatchet album cover, from a cow-throwing Minotaur to a fire-breathing Hydra. The grim tone the movie occasionally takes is easily the most interesting aspect of Percy Jackson. Here’s a movie where—in a trip through hell—life is summed up as a collection of broken dreams that only end in suffering and misery, and where a group of kids run around for a chunk of the film carrying Uma Thurman’s severed head. For a PG-rated film—made by a guy who made not one, but two Home Alone movies—this is pretty heavy stuff.
Unfortunately, this is about as interesting as the film gets. There’s too much of a tendency for Columbus to stray into goofy theatrics. An early confrontation between Poseidon and Zeus (Sean Bean) has all the earmarks of overwrought community theater. There are tons of small, unintentionally funny bits here and there. Pierce Brosnan in a wheelchair and with a great, big, bushy beard is amusing in and of itself. Pierce Brosnan later on as a centaur is hilarious. Of course, this is all loopy enough to be entertaining in a gawky kind of way, but it doesn’t really make the film all that good. The general lack of depth and substance beneath the movie’s basic conceit of teen encouragement, combined with missed opportunities (Steve Coogan as Hades is criminally underused) and the somewhat bloated running time, mean we get a nice piece of entertainment but little else. Rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language.