NON-SCIENCE FICTION MOVIE REVIEW: “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (2010)

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It’s kind of a terrible title, isn’t it? It sounds like something from a bad Ramada Inn Lounge cover band. “I am Percy Jackson, and these are The Olympians! Goodnight, Lompoc, we love you! Be sure to check out our debut album, ‘The Lightning Thief’ at our van in the parking lot after the show!” Of course this is a Fantasy film, and not in the SF genre, but since it’s a slow Sunday and there’s not much else going on, I figured ‘what the hell.’

The kids have been bugging me for weeks to take them to this when it came out, so I went, dreading it. I had very low expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised. While not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, it was a pleasant enough little romp that held my attention for the full two hours, and actually had a few clever bits. Without really spoiling the plot for you, the gist is this: There’s a whole subculture of demigods in the US. For unexplained reasons, one of these - Percy - is accused by Zeus of stealing The Lightning Bolt, so Percy and his comedy relief sidekick and love interest take a road trip to prove they didn’t do it, running afoul of various mystical baddies - mostly living in roadside attractions - as they go, and largely ignoring the mystery of *who* actually stole the thing in the first place.

 

The cast involves a lot of notable names among the cast, all in relatively minor roles - Sean Bean as Zeus, Uma Thurman as a baddie, Rosario Dawson as Persephone, and others - as well as an oddly wheedly-voiced Pierce Brosnan in a more prominent supporting capacity. Uma, with her odd contacts and prosthetics, looks a bit like Vanessa Williams in this, incidentally. Just a bit.

It’s family friendly fare, with little profanity, no nudity, and the subject of the Greek gods’ love ‘em and leave ‘em ways is handled delicately enough not to offend. Basically, tweens in the audience might catch what’s going on, but the younger kids generally won’t. There’s some good adventure bits, but nothing that’ll scare the little ones. The acceptance of pagan mythology as real might bother some extremely conservative Christians, but it’s really only superficial. No one is actually saying ‘people should worship Hera,’ and the gods and goddesses are generally portrayed as handsome jerks unworthy of devotion, so that might take some of the curse off of it, for those of you who are on the bubble over that issue.

Logan Lerman is good enough as Percy, though I felt he was a bit abrupt in some places. The scene where he first comes to grips with his heritage and freaks out is almost great, but falls apart once he starts talking and undercuts the kind of neat physical acting he was doing. Brandon Jackson as Grover, the Comedy Relief, is pretty good, and as is usual for this type of role, he gets all the best lines. (My favorite: “THIS is how you leave a casino!”) Alexandra Daddario is more than pretty enough as Annabeth the love interest, and she’s got one really good line (“I definitely have strong feelings for you, I just haven’t decided if they’re positive or negative”), but the real breakout here is Jake Abel as one of Hermes’ illegitimate kids, who’s just immensely likeable in most of his scenes. Hades is played by Steve Coogan, but it was obviously intended for some kind of stunt casting with an aging British rock star in mind. Roger Daltrey would have been great in the role - and that’s probably not something I’ve ever said before, nor will I ever say again - and Mick Jagger would have been good, too, and he’s certainly done worse films. Both of them are probably too old now, of course, so they went with essentially a Daltrey impersonator, but I felt the role needed a bit more metastory presence than it had. Catherine Keener, as Percy’s mom, is mediocre at best.

Special effects range from ‘wow!’ to ‘Ew, that was cheap!’ and the direction by Chris Columbus is…well…let’s just say that his days of doing nothing special are coming to a middle. There are a number of plot holes, chief among which is that we’re never really told why everyone immediately assumes Percy is the thief when there are literally hundreds of semi divine bastards wandering around, all of whom have issues.

What really sells this movie, though, is that the gods are portrayed as deadbeat dads. They’re jerks who knock women up for a good time, and then abandon them immediately afterwards. Percy’s dad is portrayed as *wanting* to be there for his kid, but unable to do so because of one of Zeus’s laws, but the bottom line is that the gods may not be crazy, but they’re certainly horny. A bunch of good-time Charlies (And a couple good-time gals as well) who are capricious, petulant, imperious, and mostly disinterested in the affairs of humans outside of the bedroom. This is a neat hook, and spending the film with the unwanted offspring of a couple of these gods automatically gives the children of broken homes someone to root for and identify with. It’s really tailor-made for an ever-increasing segment of our increasingly-irresponsible society, and it poses an interesting ethical dilemma as well.

That said, the movie has a very distinct “American gods” feel to it, though not nearly so dirty nor disturbing, nor sprawling. Think of it as ‘American gods Lite’ - all the calories, half the taste. Columbus - who directed the first two Harry Potter flicks - is clearly looking for a new franchise now that that one is grinding to a halt, and while it’s nowhere near as good as Harry, it’s nowhere near as bad as “The Seeker: The Darkness Is Rising” (2007) or “The Golden Compass” (2007) or that disastrous movie version of “Eragon” (2006). Let’s face it, there’s a lot of low cards in that hand, and most kids fantasy films are pretty terrible.

This one isn’t. It’s not great by any stretch, of course, but it was entertaining, and at least one of the set pieces was genuinely clever. I have no idea how it’s doing in the theaters, I suspect probably not terribly well, but I did find myself hoping they get a shot at making sequels. I wouldn’t mind having an amiable, family-friendly fantasy franchise (Quadruple alliteration) to look forward to, and my kids wouldn’t either.

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