Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Greek mythology is filled with potential ideas for great films. However, Percy Jackson and the Olympians takes a great idea, does nothing with it, and seems pretty content that it’s missing the target. It’s like they think the audience will be so impressed with the basic idea no one will notice it’s just sitting there and not really doing much. Our title boy, Percy (Logan Lerman), is your average American kid. Starkly average, to be blunt. He’s a bit of an outcast and a loser, his mom remarried a real jerk when his deadbeat dad left, and he’s got dyslexia. Or so he thinks. Y’see, it turns out Percy’s dad is Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) -- yes, the Poseidon, with the waves and the trident and the whole deal -- and it’s not so much that he’s a deadbeat, he’s just forbidden by Zeus (Sean Bean) from ever seeing Percy so the two of them don’t team up and try to overthrow the natural order of things or something like that. So, when someone does try to overthrow the natural order of things by stealing Zeus’s lightning bolt, Percy is the one everyone immediately points their finger at. Fortunately for our young hero, his parents have made arrangements for his safety. It turns out Percy’s best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) is actually a satyr charged with protecting him, and his wheelchair-bound schoolteacher is actually a centaur named Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) who’s been keeping tabs on him. Plus, there’s a space reserved for him at Camp Half Blood, conveniently just outside the city, where all the young demigods of the world learn how to master and control their abilities. Which they do by constantly trying to maim and kill one another. Under Chiron’s supervision, with a few subtle nudges from his watery dad, Percy begins to learn his full potential while getting roughed up by demigoddess Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario).

You may have noticed that, up until now, the review has been a bit light on what Percy himself is doing or thinking during all of this. That’s because for the first half of the movie Percy doesn’t do a damned thing. He makes a snide comment about his stepfather’s odor and that’s it. It’s all about people instructing, ordering, or dragging the title character off to do one thing or another. For those first 45 minutes, Percy is nothing but a sock puppet that gets passed from one character to the next. No thoughts, no opinions, no choices. He barely reacts when his mother is killed in front of him by a raging minotaur as they race to the safety of the camp.

So, it’s a big thing at the halfway point of the movie when Percy finally makes a decision of his own. He’s going to disobey orders, leave the camp, and head to the Underworld. He’s going there to convince Hades (Steve Coogan) that he’s not the one who stole Zeus’s lightning bolt so the dark god will let Percy’s mother go. Yes, it turns out his mother’s still alive, so it’s a good thing he didn’t waste any time or energy mourning her. Besides, he’s going to need that energy while he searches for the pearls of Persephone, magical items that let you escape the Underworld, after sneaking down for a visit with Hades’ somewhat-unwilling wife (Rosario Dawson). Well, somewhat unwilling with him, anyway. Although, considering what a chore it is to get each of these pearls, it’s hard to believe Persephone really wants any visitors.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t read any of the books by Rick Riordan that this movie is based on. My total experience with them was picking a paperback up at Target and showing it to my girlfriend to say “I’m reviewing the DVD of this for CinemaBlend.” As such, I have no idea if the film is slavishly loyal to the source material or so far off base they had to pay Mr. Riordan extra so he’d smile during the bonus features (we’ll get to those in a few moments).

What I do know is that this movie is frustrating and rock-stupid. The scenes are clumsy. The dialogue is wooden. The story has the episodic feel of a B-level video-game script. Tonally, it can’t figure out if it’s trying to be make a claim for the Harry Potter four-quadrant throne or if it’s a live-action Saturday-morning cartoon. Not to mention that so many of the cool reveals and “discoveries” in this film depend on the viewer having never been exposed to Greek mythology in their life. With such a fantastic idea and Chris Columbus at the helm, this movie should’ve been a slam dunk for fun if nothing else. Instead it’s a mediocre film that seems like it suffers from a very determined, deliberate lack of effort. Which is all the more frustrating.

Really, Percy Jackson feels like a cheat on a bunch of levels. Too many of its beats and scenes are copied right out of the Hogwarts playbook. Most of the challenges and obstacles in the story are overcome by Percy’s friends and family, not Percy himself. Even his dyslexia is a cheat. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him and identify with his struggles because of it, except then we find out he doesn’t actually have dyslexia. His brain’s just hardwired for ancient Greek because he’s a demigod. His basic, humanizing flaw is just another example that he doesn’t have any flaws. For a main character with so much mythology and history in his lineage, Percy Jackson is pretty flat and unremarkable. There’s not much to this disc. A quick, simple test lets you assess your potential demigod status. The theatrical trailer gives you the sense of what this film could’ve been like in different hands. “The Book Comes To Life” is a four-minute mini-feature where the cast talks about their exposure to the book and Greek myths, and author Riordan talks about the origins of the story.

I suppose one of the best features is the small collection of deleted scenes. We can see someone had the good sense to cut out the extended satyr nightclub dance number and also a dry fight sequence that has a very line-them-up-and-fight, Power Rangers feel to it. On the flipside, there’s a really nice scene where we learn why Brandon T. Jackson’s character is so obsessed with his duties as a protector. Alas, this just drives home how inconsistent the tone is. If the rest of the film took itself this seriously, I’d be writing a very different review.

It’s not like there’s tons of really bad stuff in this film; there’s just no good stuff. It’s a phenomenal idea saddled with a lot of mediocre material, which makes its failings look even worse. Some myths live forever, but some are forgotten in no time at all. Percy Jackson and the Olympians falls head-first into the latter category.