I used to date your daddy.
— Medusa (Uma Thurman)
Like many high school students, Percy (Logan Lerman) is restless. He feels distracted in class, especially because his dyslexia makes reading a chore. He’s resentful that his dad disappeared when he was a baby, and frustrated that his mother, Sally (Catherine Keener), endures ongoing abuse by her husband, the alcoholic and ignominiously named Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano). And oh yes, he’s also tired of Sally telling him, “Some day it’ll all make sense.”
That day finally arrives at the beginning of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. As this unwieldy title indicates, the movie means to establish a franchise, a Harry Potterish one at that. Just so, Percy undergoes a revelation: he’s very special, his parents are not who they seem to be, and his best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), is not actually in need of the crutches he’s leaned on for years. All this comes out after Percy’s attacked by a flying fury during a class trip to the museum: suddenly, his wheelchaired mentor Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) reveals that Percy is the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), not just a student with a good memory for plots and legends, but a demigod who is destined for great things.
At first, this all seems good. Now Percy knows why he’s so fond of water (he sits for long minutes at the bottom of the pool, “the only place I can think”). He also learns that he and his cohorts are not disabled, as he’s been thinking his whole life. Instead, Grover is a satyr, strong, swift, and inevitably randy, while Brunner is really Chiron the centaur, a trainer of heroes and warriors (Brosnan actually has to say he has a “real horse’s ass” — oi). And Percy’s reading challenges are only a function of his brain being “hardwired” for ancient Greek, and oh yes, awesome sword-fighting skills. The downside is this: Percy’s identity has been disclosed to him because he is in great danger, accused of stealing a mighty lightning bolt belonging to his uncle Zeus (Sean Bean), king of the Olympians.
In order to prepare for the likely confrontation, Percy and Grover head off to Camp Half Blood (the term for a community whose brilliant number includes someone who is currently “White House famous,” according to the in-the-know Grover). Here Percy spends a few hours honing his “natural battle reflexes” (once repressed and now bursting to the surface like he’s a floppy-haired, teenaged Jason Bourne). Here he lays eyes on his love object (for he must have one who isn’t Grover), Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario). Athena’s daughter, Annabeth is a great athlete and fighter, besting Percy during their first encounter, then duly admiring when he bounces back, his wounds all self-healing and his battle tactics all teen-manly.
Though they don’t share enough intro time, Percy also finds a new teammate, Luke (Jake Abel), son of Hermes and so, suitably mischievous and tech-savvy (his multiple-monitored room is a welcome change from the rustic look of the rest of the camp, where denizens wear tunics and soft boots and sleep on cots). He’s especially impressed by the Greek god-ish gizmos Luke owns, including flying high-top Chucks and a super-powered (if only barely CGI-ed) shield, signs that the new and the old can mesh comfortably, even cleverly, in movies that make half an effort.
That’s not to say that Percy Jackson is clever, exactly. In fact, it is mostly inept. Drawing from young-reader book series by Rick Riordan, the adventures are incongruously both slow-moving and choppy, as Percy, Grover, and Annabeth take off in search of hell, where, they hear, Sally is being held by Hades (Steve Coogan), Percy’s other uncle, the one who is perennially pissed off and prone to making bad choices. Their road trip is aided by a magical map (with live writing like Harry’s magical books) and consists of a series of episodes — each one in an iconic American locale (Nashville, Vegas, New Jersey) and featuring a Greek mythic obstacle (Medusa the gorgon, the hydra, the Lotus Casino — where, by the way, the odious ambient music includes Lady gaga). Even before they set out (to the tune of “Highway to Hell,” the unclever soundtrack choice), it’s obvious these kids will never be done — and so their franchise could conceivably go on forever. Sigh.
On occasion, the movie seems actually to have a point beyond commercial enterprise. It takes up the question of missing parents and damaged kids (though Poseidon and Athena get off the hook rather too easily here). And it highlights the comedy of clashing cultures, the one element in this formula that differentiates it from Harry Potter. So, Percy uses his shiny iPod to reflect the stone-making face of Medusa (Uma Thurman, as campy here as she was playing Poison Ivy or Bill’s lethal ex), and Annabeth exclaims that they need to beware Homeland Security (the agency is hardly equipped to deal sensibly with demigods). And the trio’s makeup, so Mod Squaddy (“One white, one black, one blond,” as the TV show’s politically incorrect tagline used to put it), allows at least a few minutes of intergender, interace, and interclass flirtations — until it’s plain that Percy and Annabeth will be leaving Grover to his own devices.
Those devices, it must be said, don’t appear to be very well thought out. While Grover is loyal and intelligent and even, on occasion, right, he is also the black kid, reduced to vernacular and other stereotyping. More sexually experienced and inclined to talk about it than Percy, Grover is disposed to chase after any girl who smiles at him — and these appear in various states of undress, bikinied daughters of Aphrodite or lotus-serving bar girls. At the casino, he spends a montage moment dressed like a pimp with girls on both arms, and more than once he’s saddled with just awful, lazy dialogue (“Yo! I got this!”).
All Grover’s awkwardness comes to something of a head when the kids arrive — at long last — in hell. Here they not only find a set of badly CGI-ed hellhounds and burning souls, but also the entertaining interactions put on by Hades and his consort Persephone (Rosario Dawson). She’s still mad, all these centuries later, that he abducted her from her mother, Demeter (the movie doesn’t mention that Persephone is also Zeus’ daughter, which makes her situation especially yucky, as Hades is her uncle). In this version of her story, Persephone acts out her displeasure by sleeping with various (infrequent) visitors to hell.
And so — you can see where this is headed — Persephone is especially delighted to see Grover, whom she greets by announcing, “I’ve never had a satyr…” Jeez. It looks like the characters of color in Percy Jackson have been paired off, a remarkable choice in a movie that is, in essence, about the glories of half-breeds.