'Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief' Needs a Bit More Voltage

This is a rare case of a film that could have used another 15-minutes to build its characters and emotional relationships.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Abel, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, Catherine Keener, Kevin McKidd, Uma Thurman
Rated: PG
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2010
US Release Date: 2010-06-29

Former schoolteacher Rick Riordan has crafted five novels in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series for young adults. They combine the modern-day world with mythological gods and creatures, which is an outstanding premise. Percy Jackson is a teenager who's stunned to learn that he's actually the son of Poseidon, which makes him a powerful demi-god. The set-up is perfect for a movie, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood called when the books became a hit. They don't draw Harry Potter-like numbers, but there were enough fans to warrant a big studio picture.

The writer chosen to adapt the first novel, The Lightning Thief, is Craig Titley — who penned the screenplays for Scooby Doo and the Cheaper by the Dozen films. That’s an interesting choice for a project with such a large franchise potential. The director is Chris Columbus, possibly the safest filmmaker in the history of movies. He helmed the first two Harry Potter pictures and did a serviceable job, but he’s no risk-taker. Columbus' work is by-the-numbers filmmaking aimed to draw the largest commercial audience. It’s still possible to deliver solid entertainment within these confines, however.

Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma) stars as Percy, who struggles in school and only feels comfortable during long sojourns under water. When a scary substitute teacher turns into a nasty Fury and attacks him, Percy's fast-paced adventure begins. The story sends him through numerous action sequences, eventually leading to the high-flying final battle. He's out to rescue his human mother, played believably by Catherine Keener in a familiar role. Her understated work feels a bit out of place, but it does bring some weight to Percy’s quest to save her.

The central plot involves the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt, which is just an excuse to send Percy up against fantastical monsters. The most effective is Uma Thurman’s chilling turn as Medusa, whose gaze turns her enemies to stone. Her appearance only lasts a few minutes but it brings more excitement than some larger CGI creatures. It also incorporates some odd product placement from Apple, whose IPhone is also useful if you’re even facing a petrifying beast.

Sean Bean and Kevin McKidd bring some credibility as Zeus and Poseidon, respectively. The father-son relationship of the god of the sea with Percy could have been an interesting storyline, but it’s given only a few brief moments to develop. The focus is definitely the action sequences, which mostly offer dull, bombastic effects but don’t fail completely. The battle with the five-headed hydra at Nashville’s Parthenon replica contains the right example of thrills and fantasy.

Percy receives help battling the evil beings from his protector Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and the striking Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), a possible romantic interest. Both are demi-gods and bring some much-needed skills to the fighting. Grover even has goat legs, which he masks in the real world by walking with crutches. There’s also a centaur, played with the right level of severity by Pierce Brosnan. This unlikely group must travel across the country to save the world from Zeus’ wrath.

The key components exist to deliver a memorable fantasy, but they never really combine into the right formula. This is a rare case of a film that could have used another 15-minutes to build its characters and emotional relationships. The two-hour running time just isn’t enough to introduce the clever premise and tell a complete story. Too many plot questions arise that could have been easily explained in a few moments.

The timing also doesn’t make sense, as the characters seem able to drive from Nashville to Vegas in a very short time. They’re facing a specific deadline from Zeus, but zero tension exists about the days remaining. I also don't really understand what the monsters are doing at their current locations. All the “why” and “how' questions might not need a complete answer, but the total combination leaves too many threads hanging.

I haven’t read the novels and can’t comment on specifics, but it’s obvious there are major changes between this picture and the printed page. First of all, Percy is 12-years-old in the book but is well into his teens here. The reasons for this change are obvious: it avoids too many similarities with Harry Potter and allows for more eye candy from the leads. Columbus and Titley have also removed plot lines from the novel and made significant additions.

There’s nothing wrong with taking huge liberties with the printed work, though it’s not always wise to alienate a dedicated fan base. Columbus went out of his way to cram everything into his Harry Potter pictures, which wasn’t a great move. This time, he appears more concerned with crafting a generic fantasy picture than pleasing the readers. The result is a watered-down story that charms at times but is too forgettable as a complete product.

This review covers the standard DVD located within the Blu-Ray release. There are additional extras for Blu-Ray owners, though I wouldn’t expect anything too informative. This DVD contains eight-minutes of deleted scenes that are mostly just extra moments from existing sequences. One exception is an interesting discussion with Grover about his background that’s a perfect example of the missing character details. There’s also a really lame “Know Your Powers” quiz that shouldn’t do much for the kids. Finally, a brief featurette gives us some basic information from Riordan about the book’s origins. This interview has the right idea but only lasts for about four-minutes. I would have liked more.

I've always enjoyed mythology tales, particularly those in television and movies. Anything that gets kids interested in fantasy stories is always a plus, and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief should achieve that goal. With the heroes' becoming older teens, it gives Titley and Columbus the chance to delve into how they function in our everyday modern world. Percy's adjustment to the stunning news is very smooth and doesn't reveal any questions about his place as a demi-god. It's no surprise to see this left out of what's essentially a kids movie. However, it could have brought emotional resonance without sacrificing the fantasy and action.


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