by Mel Valentin
The commercial success of the "Harry Potter" series, both in print and on screen, created a procession of fantasy franchises for young adults (i.e., teens, tweens, and preteens). From the early attempts to duplicate "Harry Potter’s" success, only "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" came close to matching "Harry Potter’s" commercial and pop cultural impact. The sequel, "Prince Caspian," however, failed to meet expectations ("The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is currently in production). Only "Twilight," the adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel, retained or increased interest from its predominantly female audience (the third will reach theaters this summer).A low hit-to-miss ratio hasn’t stopped Hollywood from adapting yet another young adult series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians, for the big screen. The first film, The Lightning Thief falls short in providing even the minimal entertainment value found in the least enjoyable Harry Potter film. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, is, alas, both the first and most likely the last time we’ll see the titular characters onscreen. If anything, Percy Jackson will be best remembered for making its teen lead, Logan Lerman, the lead contender for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot directed by Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer).
"A heartbreaking work of staggering mediocrity."
In both the book and the adaptation, the Greek gods (and monsters) exist in the real/reel world, but they’ve retreated to myth and legend. They still make Olympus their home (accessible via the top floor of the Empire State Building), with the exception of Hades (Steve Coogan), who rules the underworld, but they also live and, on occasion, become romantically involved with mortals, fathering or mothering demigods. The demigods often inherit the equivalent of superpowers, but are raised by their mortal parents (gods are forbidden from interacting with their demigod children). Percy Jackson (Lerman), a teen with learning disabilities (ADHD and dyslexia), struggles at school and at home.
At school, Percy hangs with his best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson). At home, he lives with his mother (Catherine Keener), and an odious stepfather, Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano). On a class trip to the Museum of Natural History, Percy discovers his demigod status when a substitute teacher sheds her skin, revealing herself as a Fury, and demands the return of Zeus’ (Sean Bean) lightning bolt. Not surprisingly, Percy doesn’t know what she’s talking about and only manages to escape harm when Grover and Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), one of Percy’s teachers, intervenes. Percy learns he’s the son of one of the “Big Three,” Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), and can control water.
Percy, Grover, and his mother flee to a special camp in the woods for demigods. Before Percy can enter the camp, a minotaur attacks, sending Percy’s mother to the underworld (she’s not dead, though). At the camp, Percy goes through semi-rigorous training, encounters Athena’s daughter, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), a.k.a., the obligatory love interest, and gets mentored by Hermes’ son, Luke (Jake Abel). The M-like Luke provides Percy with almost everything he needs when Percy decides to travel to the underworld to save his mother. Insert the obligatory reference to Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces (a.k.a. “The Hero’s Journey”) here as Percy and his friends encounter and overcome mythical monsters and gods on their journey toward young adulthood.
As the first film in a potential franchise, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief has a lot of ground to cover, building Percy’s world, establishing characters and relationships, setting goals (a basic quest narrative), etc. For an experienced veteran like Chris Columbus (Rent, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Home Alone I and II ), world-building should have been a relatively straightforward task. Unfortunately, failure is evident from the first scene that begins, not with the theft of the lightning bolt, but with a meeting between Zeus and Poseidon to discuss the theft and Percy as the prime suspect for the theft. Instead, Columbus and his screenwriter, Craig Titley, should have shown us the theft and explained why Percy, one among many demigods, would be the prime suspect (he just is). Zeus gives Poseidon what seems like an arbitrary deadline (14 days, the summer solstice), again without explanation.
The camp scenes rush by, clumsily establishing new characters, but failing to explain character motivations (e.g., why Luke befriends Percy), and later still, why Percy believes simply showing up in the underworld and explaining his innocence to Hades (who wants the lightning bolt for himself) would result in his mother’s freedom. Aided by a magical map, Percy’s road trip quest takes him, Grover, and Annabeth to New Jersey, Nashville, Las Vegas, and finally Los Angeles, to acquire three magical stones and the portal to the underworld. There’s little sense of urgency in these scenes, partly because of the contrived nature of Percy’s quest, partly because of the over-reliance on visual effects (as opposed to practical effects).Almost, if not just as importantly, the visual effects have to create a sense of wonder and awe in moviegoers, if not by showing them something new and innovative, then in showing them something better than what they’ve seen before. Unfortunately, "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" fails there as well. Mediocre, sometimes sub-par (as in unfinished looking) visual effects give "Percy Jackson" an unfinished and/or cheap-looking quality. Whether due to budgetary limitations, an inflexible release date, or both, "Percy Jackson" looks like it was made five or six years ago. Expect this latest attempt to duplicate "Harry Potter’s" commercial success to sink like a magical stone.
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originally posted: 02/12/10 12:00:00