As a movie Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the perfect advertisement for the books on which it’s based. Unfortunately at times it feels like nothing more than an advertisement. The best thing you can say about director Chris Columbus’s adaptation is that he’s incapable of destroying whatever magic and wonder it is in those books that has kept kids coming back for more. But it’s not for lack of trying. Columbus’s movie is bland and uninspired. It’s under-budgeted, full of blank actors and clumsily constructed action sequences.
The movie and the books tell the story of a teenager who discovers he’s a demi-god. A demi-god is someone who’s half mortal, half immortal. Hercules? Maybe you’ve heard of him. He was a demi-god. In this case it’s Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), a high school kid who doesn’t know that he’s actually the son of the god Poseidon. Unbeknownst to Percy, head god Zeus (played by an utterly wasted Sean Bean) has accused Percy of stealing his lightning bolt. Soon Percy is thrust into a world of hydras and hell beasts. He discovers his favorite teacher is actually a Centaur (in one of the film’s two good performances, played capably by Pierce Brosnan) and his best friend is really a Satyr (played by Brandon T. Jackson giving the other good performance).
Percy’s mom, played by a lost and confused Catherine Keener, has been kidnapped by a Minataur. So after a stop at the secret camp for the bastard children of Olympians, our boy Jackson rounds up a team of fellow demi-gods which includes his Satyr buddy and Athena’s daughter Annabeth (Played by Alexandra Daddario who isn’t exactly great, but deserves credit for actually looking the part. Unlike every other actress in Hollywood, she manages to look stunningly beautiful while also looking like actually she eats.). Together they set out to save Percy’s mother and figure out what’s up with Zeus’s lightning bolt.
Percy Jackson is the kind of movie where the bad guy corners the good guy, puts a gun to his head, and then just stands there and watches the good guy take a thirty second pause to power up his abilities and destroy him. You had thirty seconds warning. It doesn’t take that long to pull the trigger. But Percy Jackson also has some good ideas and a strange, comfortable charm which shines through in spite of all the bad directing, acting, and lazy effects work. You probably won’t notice that goat boy’s CGI legs look like they’re two dimensional, or that he only seems to have them when they think they can’t get away with him not having them. You probably won’t care that Medusa’s snakes look like they’ve been CGI’d with a glue-gun, or that the only reason Percy Jackson can hold his so long breath underwater is because he’s obviously sitting in front of a greenscreen only pretending to be underwater. You won’t notice because the idea of recreating the story of Hercules and setting it in a modern era is a fun one, you won’t notice because even though the characters here are poorly executed, they were originally conceived of by someone who knew which side of the pen all the ink comes out of. That’s more than I can say for Lightning Thief as a movie.
Lightning Thief’s story is at war with itself. It seems to want to avoid the usual clichés of the kid-turned-hero fantasy genre, but has no idea how to do it. For instance, when Percy enters a demi-god training facility, the film seems headed for a boring, cliché training montage. The film avoids that by having our hero suddenly turn into the world’s greatest fighter for no reason at all. Even raw talent must be honed and if it’s not being honed then why the hell does Percy Jackson have an instructor? What’s he instructing him in? Nothing that I can see. So no one seems to notice when Percy wins a game of capture the flag by fighting two people and then calmly waltzing up to the enemy flag while the entire opposing army stands around watching him. Of course he wins, he’s Percy Jackson. I mean, sure he managed to beat a couple of guys one on one, but there’s fifty of you literally within arms reach of him. Maybe you could grab him all at once?
If you stop to think about any of it The Lightning Thief is a maddening film. But the frustration of it all is outweighed by those moments when it all comes together. There’s a brilliant effects sequence towards the beginning of the film, when Hades himself, winged and horned and wreathed in flame rises up from the middle of a bonfire. It’s an eye-popping shot, as eye-popping as most of the movie’s other effects are not. A drug sequence in a casino proves to be a surprising amount of fun and cameos by people like Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson give the movie’s stranger moments a little extra umpf.
The Lightning Thief works mostly because it’s a good idea. It’s Harry Potter meets the X-Men, set to the tune of all the crazy Greek mythology you learned in grammar school. That’s too much fun to be ruined, the books on which it’s based are full of too many good ideas to be torpedoed by lazy filmmaking. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m off to read the books. Don’t bother with the sequel, I’ll catch it in print.