'Percy Jackson' Is Greece-y Kids' Stuff
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
As adapted from the first installment of Rick Riordan's kid-lit adventure saga, "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" begins with the sound of thunder and the absence of lightning. As Zeus (Sean Bean) explains to his bother Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) atop the Empire State Building, someone's stolen Zeus' mighty bolt. Zeus suspects Poseidon's abandoned son, because while the gods are forbidden conflict, their offspring are not. But Poseidon's son Percy (Logan Lerman) doesn't have the bolt, and doesn't even know his divine heritage. But Percy's about to be brought up to speed, and fast, because finding the bolt will be the key to saving his mother Sally (Catherine Keener) from a Hell far more literal than figurative.
Directed by Chris Columbus ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"), "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is another attempt to recreate the on-screen Potter phenomenon, with kids (late teens here) hurled into mythical magical battles. There's a done-in-one feeling to "Percy Jackson," though, with no obvious setup for a sequel or a series-long arc. That modesty, probably partially motivated by how Fox doesn't want to get "Golden Compass"-ed if "Percy Jackson" flops, ill befits an epic saga, and may disappoint fans of the books. But Columbus knows this territory well, even if the world of Percy Jackson is a bit more violent and visceral and less warm and whimsical than that of Harry Potter. (When Percy takes refuge at "Camp Half-Blood," the training camp for demigod Olympian offspring with deadbeat dads and missing moms, he's immediately thrust into swordplay opposite his peers; it's like "300" summer camp, and a touch intense.)
But as Percy and his protector Grover (Brandon T. Jackson of "Tropic Thunder" playing a fast-talking satyr) and ally Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, go through the motions of their quest, finding teleporting pearls they can use to escape once they save Percy's mom from Hades (Steve Coogan), the road-trip quest story line should divert teens who aren't quite old enough to have seen this stuff before. There are some nice moments, to be sure, including Uma Thurman as a Tallulah Bankhead-styled Medusa, an effects-heavy fight with a hydra, the "Lotus Casino" sequence's mix of comedy and peril and several other nice touches as "Percy Jackson" sets the old gods within the new world.
But the revelation of the film's real villain seems a bit forced, the comedic stuff Jackson supplies is a bit too much while the ostensible romantic interest supplied by Daddario is a bit too little, and Keener is relegated to offering exposition while trapped behind force fields. But the climactic battle, with Percy and his opponent flitting over New York in winged high-tops boosted from Hermes' closet and blasting at each other with mighty powers on rooftops, has the myth-in-Manhattan coolness of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko's iconic Marvel comics art. Lerman also has the right kind of slowly-built swagger to convey how Percy grows into a hero, even if Craig Titley's script feels more workmanlike than divinely inspired.
Only time and, more importantly, money will tell if Percy Jackson returns to theaters. But young adult fans of the books will enjoy seeing the first splashed up on the big screen with all of the special effects and familiar faces money can buy, from Pierce Brosnan's four-footed centaur take on Dumbledore to Coogan's rock-star lord of the underworld. "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is an attempt to steal some of Harry Potter's thunder, but it also stands on its own as a well-made large-scale adventure that works well enough to entertain the teens it's hoping to strike.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.