‘Percy Jackson’ is Slick, Superficial…and Subpar

Ah, Chris Columbus, you interminable franchise-mongerer. Having done nothing of real worth, commercially or in terms of entertainment, since the first two Harry Potter movies, it was too easy to guess you’d want to hop on the first screen adaptation of the Percy Jackson novel series. Columbus’ game instinct as a blockbuster film-maker can hardly be denied, given that he’s been behind two of the most successful kiddie franchises in recent memory: Harry Potter and the first two Home Alones. He also directed Mrs. Doubtfire, which for better or worse remains one of Robin Williams’ most recognizable roles in a long career.

But Columbus has never made a great film; in fact, it’s questionable whether he’s ever released an even cohesively good one, and if he has a directorial style it’s yet to emerge. Like Michael Bay, Columbus can undoubtedly work CGI to shape a fantasy; he is also far more subtle at slathering it on a film so it disguises the general lack of verve and/or story. But the effect of all this trickery is to leave nothing worth remembering. His films, this one included, have a clinical transience. Which brings us to another quibble: the Percy Jackson books, written by Rick Riordan, are supposedly ‘popular.’ I’d never heard of them before the screen. Was anyone really clamoring for a transition of a teenage hero (ickily) named Percy to the big screen? Potter was excusable to some extent, because just about everyone in the world had got around to reading them, but when you’re picking up another teen-targeted set of novels and putting them on screen, it can’t help but seem like clutching at straws.

Percy Jackson is a rummage through the fantasy lucky dip. The title character is a demi-god, meaning he is the son of a Greek god – Poseidon, in this case, the god of water – and a human mother. He must discover his gift and save the world from oncoming evil. It comes up with all sorts of disparate elements, tacked on from other films, and lots of coy, sometimes kind of clever toying around with Greek mythology. There are the stock mythical beasts, including centaurs and fauns. Early in the film, there is a big and over-earnest battle scene with lots of extras a la The Chronicles of Narnia, appearing like nothing so much as an unintentional imitation of the far superior medieval role-playing parody in Role Models. It plays like an adventure film crossed with a road-trip, crossed with an ad for America’s sights.

Something very grating about the film is that it has all been uniformly Americanized, as if trying to win over a huge domestic audience. For some reason in the past several hundred (thousand?) years, all these Greek gods and mythical beings immigrated to America. Mount Olympus is now accessed through the Empire State building. All the Greek gods speak perfect English, although their children are ‘hardwired’ to read Ancient Greek – this is a useful gift, as I wasn’t aware languages were hereditary. Instead of adding any authentic world cinema touches, everything takes place in the USA, including a replica of the Parthenon in Tennessee rather than the original, and a druggy scene in a Vegas nightclub. Nothing that happens, it is implied, has an impact on any other part of the world.

As a story, the film presents raises some interesting possibilities about theology, which it is not interested in engaging with. It stays away entirely from the implications of Greek gods still existing and ruling the world, crying out to be taken purely as escapist fare. And it would be pretty good escapist fare, too, for young audiences… if the tone weren’t so uncertain and kind of creepy. This is a movie in which the otherwise innocent formula of underdog triumphing, etc. manages to shoehorn a Las Vegas nightclub scene – echoes of The Hangover – into proceedings, where our band of protagonists gets drugged out on mind-altering drugs. It is also probably the only PG movie to use a decapitated head as a plot point.

It’s so camp and suspiciously naff that it’s hard to know what reaction you’re supposed to have to it, but it’s not without amusement. Several moments are so poorly handled, incoherent, or just plain off that they’re hilarious, but it’s difficult to know whether this is intentional or if it all is meant to be straight-faced. Suffice it to say that, in the ‘real world,’ these demi-god heroes hide behind disabilities. Percy Jackson has ADHD and dyslexia, while Pierce Brosnan parades in geriatric fashion around a museum in a wheelchair. We later see Pierce Brosnan trotting around on hooves, and it is revealed he is actually Chiron. No attempt is ever made to explain how his enormous hindquarters could possibly be hidden in a wheelchair. The teenage acting standard varies hugely, and Columbus is probably wise to turn the focus to the next mythical beast rather than have them try and carry the film.

The story is scripted by Craig Titley, whose other writing credits include Cheaper by the Dozen and Scooby-Doo. The story is wobbly, missing any clear explanations or motives for character actions. If this nearly gets swept up in the action, the enormously stilted dialogue doesn’t even come close. Percy demands of Hades, the god of the underworld, to know where his mother is, after Hades has just told him.

“I don’t feel like it [my new school] is helping, Mum,” Percy confesses to his mother, dutifully ironing.

“Oh. Why do you feel that?” she responds dutifully.

In the opening scene of the movie, we are saddled with this all-time clunker, spoken somberly from one god to another (on top of the Empire State building, no less):

“Omnipotence has blinded you, brother.”

Rosario Dawson and Steve Coogan appear to be having fun in their roles as Persephone and Hades, respectively. Kevin McKidd, as Poseidon, and Sean Bean, Zeus, are much stiffer. Catherine Keener is oddly damp and off as the mother – this seems like a reprisal of her much better work in Where the Wild Things Are. Finally, Uma Thurman gives either a great or a really hideous performance as Medusa; I still can’t work out which. She certainly stands out, more than most of the rest of this picture does, and it provides the ideal ham role for her more over-the-top tendencies.

Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief is never remotely realistic, despite its sleek look. The CGI must be paid its due, but it’s the interaction between actors that lets this down. It is nonetheless a fairly humorous and not unenjoyable fantasy romp; if a film makes you laugh, even unintentionally, it has to be counted as better than something that is over-earnest and boring. This is probably on the level of the first two Harry Potter films: dodgy acting and bombast, overlong and with loud, obvious musical cues. But anyone who has endured real fantasy duds – Eragon, even 10,000 B.C. – will know: it’s far from a total disaster.

RATING 4 / 10