Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

(2010) ** 1/2 Pg
120 min. 20th Century Fox Distribution. Director: Chris Columbus. Cast: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan.

/content/films/3691/1.jpgIt's not easy being Greek. That's what high-schooler Percy Jackson discovers when he learns that his absent father was the Greek god Poseidon, making Percy a demigod with a curfew. As the son of Hermes tells him, "We all got daddy issues." With Chris Columbus (director of the first two Harry Potter films) at the helm of the cinematic adaptation of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief—and Rick Riordan's five Percy Jackson books widely acknowledged to be Harry Potter knockoffs (albeit witty and entertaining ones)—the elephant in the room is J.K. Rowling's creation. It's a shame the movie has to stand in these shadows, as it's an enjoyable PG-rated family adventure in its own right, but Columbus' film can't live up to the Potter gold standard, and it strays enough from Riordan's source material to make its tween readership blow a gasket every few minutes.

Percy (Logan Lerman) seems to be your average underachieving New York high-schooler, though only because he's been let down by an indifferent educational system. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and lorded over by a nasty stepdad (Joe Pantoliano), the lad's one comfort is his loving mother (Catherine Keener). But during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Percy discovers the hard way that he's a demigod and, what's worse, he's (inexplicably) suspected of stealing Zeus' thunderbolt. Counseled by the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan)—who's undercover as Percy's wheelchair-bound history teacher—Percy absconds to Camp Half-Blood, a Narnian training ground where the war games involve swords and shields. The swordplay looks a lot like foreplay when Percy spars with Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, but he can always confide in his best bud Grover (Brandon T. Jackson of Tropic Thunder), a downlow satyr who's been protecting Percy since childhood. The son of Hermes is the big man on camp: Luke (Jake Abel) conspires to help Percy, Annabeth, and Grover set off on a mission to prove Percy's innocence.

What Percy Jackson has going for it is considerable: clever concepts, stunt casting, energy, and a blitzkrieg pace. Don't like one set piece? Fine, here comes another one. The plot may lurch awkwardly from chapter to chapter, but like an old cliffhanger serial, the movie has more derring do than derring don't. The road trip takes Percy and company to settings that cleverly integrate Ancient Greek characters into modern America: Medusa's lair is a New Jersey garden store full of stone statues (natch), the Lotus Eaters are the denizens of a Vegas hotel and casino (you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave), there's a fire-breathing hydra hiding out at Nashville's Parthenon Park, and the entrance to Hades is under the Hollywood sign (plus, we first see Kevin McKidd's Poseidon striding past the old-school columns of a Restoration Hardware). Throw in a Fury and a Minotaur and you got yourself a party, Ancient Greek style. It's also a neat trick how Riordan spins Percy's ADHD and dyslexia—subversive qualities to give an action hero—into undiscovered special powers (they turn out to be manifestations of the godly blood in his veins).

The biggest problem is that Columbus—who has always been a fairly generic populist—has lost whatever touch he had. Saddled with Craig Titley's mediocre screenplay, Columbus contentedly churns out a competent, flashy but uninspired fantasy action flick for kids. A lot of wide-eyes and "Whoa!"s stand in for genuine wonder, and it all plays more corny than cool. A seemingly uncomfortable Lerman tries to be cool—swaggering and squinting like an action hero should—but his charisma isn't backed up by much characterization in the script department. Percy's peers come off just as generic, unfortunately (though Jackson brings plenty of energy), which makes the adult supporting cast all the more crucial. The always resonant Keener is a big help, it's a kick to see Brosnan (purring his lines for maximum majesty) plopped onto the body of a horse, and the picture gets a late lift from Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson as Hades and Persephone. And Sean Bean (Zeus) and Uma Thurman (Medusa) can take comfort in the fact that they beat their Clash of the Titans counterparts to the screen by a month and a half (having already played Batman foe Poison Ivy, Thurman may not be imaginative casting for Medusa, but boy does she work in the role).

By now it should be clear that Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a decidedly mixed bag, but it certainly doesn't lack for adventure. If one can let go of one's prejudices and take the ride, there's escapist fun to be had. After all, there's a scene involving flying, winged Chuck Taylors: how bad could it be?

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/29/2010

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox brings Percy Jackson to Blu-ray in aBlu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy edition with a beaut of a hi-def transfer, blistering sound, and a family-friendly suite of bonus features. The picture quality is outstanding, with sharp detail, vibrant color, deep blacks, and accurate contrast adding up to an authentic, nicely dimensional, eye-popping recreation of the theatrical image. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is just awesome, with clear, clean dialogue and robust musical score while also delivering downright shattering effects during the many action sequences for a pleasingly immersive assault on the senses.

In special features, you'll find ten interesting "Deleted Scenes" (14:03, HD) for starters.

The interactive feature Secrets of the Gods (HD), by branching out to video pods, serves as a guide to the mythological characters, and there's also a cute Discover Your Powers Quiz (HD).

"The Book Comes to Life" (4:24, HD) hastily gathers comments from author Rick Riordan, Jake Abel, Brandon T. Jackson, Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, and Chris Columbus, while "Inside Camp Half-Blood" (5:09, HD) features more behind-the-scenes footage and sound bites from screenwriter Craig Titley, Jackson, Columbus, Lerman, prop master Bryan Korenberg, Daddario, Abel, producer Michael Barnathan, and production designer Howard Cummings.

"On Set with Brandon T. Jackson" (5:56, HD) is one of those increasingly popular "workday-in-the-life of a Hollywood personality" featurettes.

"Meet the Demigods" (3:49, HD) is another quick promo with Lerman, Jackson, Daddario, Abel, and Jackson, and "Composing for the Gods: A Conversation with Christophe Beck" (3:29, SD) is self-explanatory.

Also included is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:26, HD) and the gateway to considerable BD-Live functionality, including the featurette "Demigods at Work and Play: Inside the Lotus Land Casino" (2:38).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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