Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief / ** (PG)

Percy Jackson: Logan Lerman
Grover: Brandon T. Jackson
Annabeth: Alexandra Daddario
Luke: Jake Abel
Sally Jackson: Catherine Keener
Mr. Brunner/Chiron: Pierce Brosnan
Poseidon: Kevin McKidd
Zeus: Sean Bean
Hades: Steve Coogan
Persephone: Rosario Dawson
Medusa: Uma Thurman

Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Chris Columbus. Written by Craig Titley. Based on the book by Rick Riordan. Running time: 119 min. Rated PG (for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language).

There was a strange excitement I felt in preparing to watch “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”, mostly due to the fact that I was bringing my 8-year-old boy to what promised to be the start of another exciting fantasy franchise. I found myself asking my boy questions about the movie, which he had seen heavily advertised in the past few weeks. He knew nothing of the Greek mythology that inspired this modern story. I told him of Zeus and Poseidon and their brother Hades, who ruled the underworld. He was eager to learn my little bit of remembered knowledge on the Greek Gods; however, I knew nothing of how their mythology worked into the popular adolescent book series upon which this movie is based.

Much of my own eagerness had to do with the fact that I’ve been very impressed by the “Harry Potter” film franchise. “Percy Jackson” seems built upon the same model. The main characters are adolescents just coming into their own gifts and abilities, they are supported by a large cast of adult characters played by a who’s who of British and American acting greats, and they even tapped the director of the first two Potter films, Chris Columbus, to launch this new franchise.

At the top of the story we meet Zeus (Sean Bean, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”) and his brother Poseidon (Kevin McKidd, “Made of Honor”) on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. There is tension in the family, as Zeus believes that Poseidon’s half human son has stolen his lightning bolt. Although Poseidon assures Zeus this is not possible, Zeus vows war if the bolt isn’t returned within 14 days. Why it never occurs to either brother that Hades (Steve Coogan, “Night at the Museum”), the third brother they banished to the netherworld, might be behind the theft is beyond me.

Of course, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman, “3:10 to Yuma”) is completely unaware that he is a demigod (half human, half god) and therefore quite unaware that he is the son of Poseidon; however, he does like to sit at the bottom of the swimming pool for longer periods of time than most teenagers. Soon everything is spelled out to him by his crippled teacher Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan, “Mamma Mia!”), who is actually a centaur—half man, half horse—and his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson, “Tropic Thunder”), who turns out to be a satyr—half man, half goat. Percy takes all this revelation in stride, considering; and it provides an interesting, if not somewhat insulting, explanation for Percy’s “dyslexia.”

Eventually Percy, Grover and the PG sexy warrior Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) are on a cross country scavenger hunt looking for three “pearls” that will allow them to escape the underworld. Percy feels he must rescue his mother (Catherine Keener, “Where the Wild Things Are”) from Hades, who has kidnapped her as collateral, since he is also convinced that Percy is the thief. The logic of this course of action is a little fuzzy for me. It seems it would’ve made more sense to find the real lightening thief and let Zeus sort things out with Hades to get Percy’s mom back.

Anyway, there are some dazzling special effects in this movie. It looks very expensive; and Columbus proves he still has the knack for delivering exciting action sequences involving adolescent actors and CGI dragons and magic. The screenplay on the other hand isn’t quite up to the quality of Steve Kloves’ work on the “Harry Potter” franchise. Screenwriter Craig Titley (whose screen resume up to this point has been mostly relegated to story credits) doesn’t show much of a knack for adolescent inspired dialogue. When a former James Bond is referring to the three most powerful Greek gods as “The Big Three”, I have trouble grasping the gravity of what is happening on screen.

Even the film’s situations make it seem like the heroes are children playing at the games of the gods rather than actually finding themselves involved with the gods’ affairs. Percy is taken to a camp for the gods’ illegitimate children; and let me tell you, those gods have been busy. For their combat training they play capture the flag. That might work for military training exercises, but it seems a little combat light for a war with the gods. In fact, I’m not even sure why they are training for combat at their little demigod summer camp, since this whole lightning thief thing just came up; but it seems to be all they do there. Shouldn’t somebody be investigating this theft and trying to figure out who the thief really is?

For all the let down “The Lightning Thief” was for me, its aspirations aren’t as broad as the “Harry Potter” franchise. “Harry Potter” has been designed to play for all ages, while “Percy Jackson” isn’t quite so interested in reaching beyond the book’s target audience. I found myself looking for something to appeal to me, but my boy says out of all the movies he’s seen—and it’s important to remember that as my child this kid’s been exposed to a larger pool of films than most his age—“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is the best one he’s seen so far.

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