Back when Chris Columbus directed the first two Harry Potter films, I was not particularly happy with him. I’m still not actually, but I’m not sure that Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is an endeavor quite so worthy of – A) the comparison it can’t hope to escape, or B) the generally negative scrutiny it is already falling victim to.
Columbus, Hollywood’s reigning King of average in average out, managed a rather solid bit of fun here, and one that should not be called out lightly based upon the things it is not, because it is not those things rather purposefully, and to great effect besides.
Based on the book by Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson is the story of a young boy (aged a few years for the film) living a boring life with his mother and obnoxious pig of a step-father, who discovers that he is in fact the son of Poseidon. He learns this bizarre truth when he is attacked because all of Olympus seems to have it in their heads that he stole Zeus’ lightning bolt.
Before you can blink, it turns out that his best friend Grover is really his assigned protector, and a satyr no less, and his teacher is Chiron (Pierce Brosnan), the centaur leader of a demigod safe haven/training camp. As Percy notes himself in the film, it’s a lot to take in. Unfortunately, Percy doesn’t have a lot of time to get used to his new situation, because if Zeus doesn’t get his lightning bolt back in a hurry, there’s going to be a war.
With barely time to meet Annabeth, the next biggest thing at Demigod Bootcamp, and daughter of Athena, Percy learns that his mother has been abducted by Hades. Having little clue what to do, or how to do it, Percy, Grover, and Annabeth join up to save Percy’s mother from the underworld. Hopefully, the end of the world will somehow be diverted in the process.
What follows is an odd and fairly random-feeling adventure across the U.S. in order to find certain keys to escaping the underworld once in. This serves as the excuse for battles against mythological beasties, the most entertaining being Medusa (Uma Thurman).
There is something about the feel of the film, both in the story construction (or screenplay translation perhaps) and the structure of the scenes, that feels very slapdash. There is also a very strong inclination to think something along the lines of – if we had a few more months, another $30 million, and a different director… well, then we might really have had something. But, would we? I wonder what we would have had. You see, I can find a fair number of faults with this movie, but I wonder about many of them. Much of it is rather goofy, certainly, and I personally would have liked to see someone try to build more presence into a film translation, perhaps along the lines of Cuaron’s effort with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There is a general lack of “magic” to the thing, though I’m not sure that’s actually a flaw.
The trouble with analyzing the flaws of the thing is twofold really. First, I had a pretty good time. The two-hour runtime went by surprisingly quickly, and there was a decent enough blend of seriousness, adventure, and seriously goofy adventure. Second, there comes a point at which asking whether or not I like this film simply becomes a stupid question.
For all that many moments irritated me, felt forced and downright nonsensical, and as much as other things did not sit well in front of my critical eye (like a much too long battle at the end), these things were countered by some genuinely humorous moments, an interesting take on introducing the fantastical into the real world, and the fact that a hydra is just wicked cool.
I may have come away from Percy Jackson with a general feeling that much more could have been done, but hopefully I would leave the source with something like a similar feeling, and I’m not sure that outmaneuvering a children’s work is any mark of superiority.
Despite watching the film in a sort of constant state of “feeling the faults,” I was keenly aware that there was something else to the experience as well. Though it might not be delivered perfectly here, there is something captivating about the mythology, and there is something exceptionally intriguing about Percy Jackson. Somewhere, possibly buried deep within, I admit, there is a more engaging story going on, and it is coming by way of characters who seem miles more real than that stuff about that other boy in a fantasy world. Oh, it’s not the best movie you’ll see. It probably isn’t even the best fantasy movie you’ll see this year, but like another recent, unsung young adult film, City of Ember, there is a spark in here that makes up for the film’s flaws.
Potential spoilers ahead. Well, I mean, yes, there are some big shockers in this movie, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It becomes a stupid question, because I could tear this movie apart (and some part of me wants to), but a thousand-word essay I put together which makes use of interesting points of film theory and talks about narrative and acting ability and anything else… still won’t mean a damn thing to my kid.
My son (now 8), whose work as a movie critic has already managed to get him mentioned on Neil Gaiman’s blog here, loved Percy Jackson. He loved that Percy was, “kind of a more real kid,” and he loved that there, “sort of wasn’t a villain really… or, I guess bad guy, or whatever. Just the other kid who… well, I dunno… I guess he’s just mad at his dad, or his life, or something, but he isn’t really evil. He’s just messed up.”
“It was awesome. I guess it was… maybe the same as Harry Potter. I dunno, they’re different, so I guess the same. I liked them both at the topmost(?).”
On the way home, my son exhausted my knowledge of the Olympian world and its occupants, and while I’m not Bulfinch exactly, I’m not a complete slouch either. That’s when the whole thing came together for me. Harry Potter did a fair enough job making me feel like I wanted to know what was going to happen next, but Percy Jackson made me want to know everything.
I had to buy the books on the way home as well, and despite still being in the middle of tearing through the Potter works (somewhere along in the fourth), my son decided to switch over. After starting to read the book, he thought about the movie, and the comparison of how things were starting out…
“I guess not having your Dad around sort of screws up everything.”
Are You Screening?
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