Harry Potter meets Clash of the Titans in Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, the first installment of Rick Riordan’s fantasy pentalogy, directed by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). The target audience for Percy Jackson & The Olympians has never seen Clash of the Titans, of course (I mean the original Clash of the Titans, of course, not the coming remake). That they have seen Harry Potter goes without saying.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about The Lightning Thief is that Percy is a boy hero who naturally takes the initiative. J. K. Rowling called Harry Potter “The Boy Who Lived,” but too often, as I’ve noted, a more accurate moniker would be “The Boy Things Happen To.” Where Harry often wound up being a passive protagonist in his own adventures, Percy sets off on a quest to rescue his mother from the domain of Hades. I’m not saying it’s the best plan, but at least he’s trying.
The story is overtly derivative of Rowling’s creation. Percy (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma, Hoot) has an oppressive stepfather (rather than a whole family of Dursleys) who gets unexpected comeuppance from a representative of a world unknown to Percy, a guide charged with ushering Percy to his new life. Harry’s adventures begin when he discovers his wizarding parentage; Percy’s life changes when he learns that he is a demigod, the son of Poseiden. Percy also learns that his life is in danger from evil creatures who want to destroy him, just as Harry’s life is sought by Voldemort.
As Harry was taken to Hogwarts, Percy is brought to a training site for demigods, the regrettably named Camp Half Blood. Percy even has two sidekicks, a boy and a girl. Annabeth Chase (Alexandra Daddario), the daughter of Athena, is no Hermione, or perhaps Alexandra Daddario is no Emma Watson, I’m not sure. But I think I like Grover Underwood the satyr (Brandon T. Jackson, The Day the Earth Stood Still) better than Ron Weasley, or maybe the older Ron of the latter Potter movies is grating on me.
The backdrop of Greek mythology makes an enjoyable change of pace from the medieval fantasy magic of the Potter stories, though Harry’s first adventure did have a giant three-headed dog, which is perhaps why Percy and his friends enter Hades without confronting Cerberus. But The Lightning Thief makes the most of the Hydra, Hermes’ winged footgear, and especially Medusa, played by Uma Thurman with a hammy gusto that’s as delightful here as it was atrocious in Batman and Robin. I’m not sure Thurman quite eclipses Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creature effects in Clash of the Titans as my favorite big-screen Medusa, but she comes close, which is saying something.
Medusa only gets one scene, though, and she’s one of the film’s jucier adult parts. The Potter movies may center on a trio of teenagers, but it’s the likes of Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman and others who make them as fun as they are for grown-ups. The Lightning Thief comes up short here.
Pierce Brosnan is blandly pleasant as Chiron, an undercover centaur who somehow passes for a wheelchair-bound human teacher at Percy’s school. Sean Bean makes a fine Zeus, and Kevin McKidd is effective as Poseidon, but they’re limited to a couple of scenes. Steve Coogan has some fun as Hades, though he’s upstaged by Rosario Dawson as his bored, vampish wife Persephone. Even so, they only get one scene.
The story has fun Americanizing its mythological source material in various ways. Percy’s quest takes him to the Parthenon — the one in Nashville, not the one in Athens — and Mount Olympus has been relocated to the top of the Empire State Building. The Lotus Eaters have moved from their island to a Las Vegas nightclub, which makes all kinds of sense. And even the movie recognizes the irony when it turns out that the gates of Hades are located in Hollywood. (On the other hand, the story misses an opportunity when Percy mechanically repeats Perseus’s trick of looking at Medusa in the reflection of his shield by using the reflective back of his iPhone: He should have used the iPhone camera to view Medusa on the screen. Duh.)
Plot holes multiply like hydra heads. The villain’s scheme makes no sense. The “lightning thief” has stolen Zeus’s thunderbolt, knowing that this affront will lead to war among the jealous, petty gods. (“All gods are selfish,” comments Luke, the son of Hermes (Jake Abel); it’s about as accurate a summary of classical mythology as you’re likely to find in four words.) Okay, fine. But then the thief (I don’t know why I’m being coy about his identity, since it’s barely hidden) impulsively decides to involve Percy in his plans in a way that has an extremely high chance of failure, adds nothing to his original plan, and greatly weakens his ability to achieve his ultimate goals. It’s just stupid.
To go a bit deeper into spoiler territory, the thief decides to have Percy unwittingly smuggle the stolen bolt into the domain of Hades, who will presumably use it against Zeus. To what purpose? War among the gods was already inevitable. The new plan could easily go wrong: The challenges Percy faces before getting to Hades are enormous, and it even looks as if the villain may be conspiring against him (antagonists at one battle tell Percy they’ve been “expecting” him).
Even if Percy makes it to the realm of Hades with the bolt, it’s far from clear that the god of the underworld will find it on him. Worse, what if Percy finds it first? He’ll just return it to Zeus to avert the war. Most glaring of all, the thief’s ultimate goal is to seize power as the gods war among themselves. Zeus’s bolt is said to be the most powerful weapon in the world. Rule #1 of plotting to conquer the gods: The world’s most powerful weapon can come in handy. If you happen to acquire it, you might want to hang onto it. Duh.
There are other duh moments. When Percy initially sets out to find Hades and rescue his mother, his two friends first try to talk him out of it, but when he won’t be dissuaded, they eventually agree to accompany him. Only then does anyone raise the glaring question: Where exactly does Percy think he’s going? How does he plan to get to Hades? Once they realize that, why do his friends actively help him chart a course? A minute ago they were dead set against his going at all. (By the way, memo to the filmmakers: The Greek Hades is different from the Christian hell … and we didn’t really need the AC/DC “Highway to Hell” riff on the soundtrack, did we?)
While I don’t mind the portrayal of the Greek gods as petty and selfish, I’m less comfortable with the way the fantastical plot points dovetail with Percy’s messy home life. On the one hand, this parallels the conceit of having every seemingly mundane issue in the characters’ lives turn out to have a mythic explanation. Brosnan’s wheelchair-bound teacher is really a centaur; Percy’s classmate Grover walks with braces because he’s actually a satyr. As for Percy himself, he’s diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, but it turns out his difficulty with written English is actually a natural gift for reading ancient Greek, and his seeming hyperactivity and lack of focus are actually symptoms of a kind of demigod spider-sense.
I have no real objection, I guess, to a story in which mundane disabilities turn out to be super-powers. (Riordan created Percy Jackson after his son was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD.) I’m a bit troubled, though, with the explanations that emerge for Percy’s absent father and his mother’s remarriage to a smelly, abusive jerk.
Other kids have deadbeat dads, but Percy’s father had to leave because Zeus insisted that mortal attachments were humanizing him, and he needed to take care of divine business. And the smelly jerk (Joe Pantoliano)? Percy’s mother (Catherine Keener) married him because — yes, really — his body odor helped mask the scent of Percy’s half-divine blood from monsters. See, kid, it’s not that Daddy was a rat and Mommy is codependent, it’s that Daddy loved you so much it might have upset the balance of the universe, and Mommy is secretly using that abusive jerk to protect you.
On the other hand, Percy’s initial super-power, the ability to sit at the bottom of the swimming pool for seemingly as long as he wants to, is kind of cool. That’s how we first meet him: calm, serene, in silence and solitude — not alienated like Dustin Hoffman at the bottom of his parents’ pool in The Graduate with SCUBA gear and a harpoon gun, but simply in his element … the way any kid, especially one with troubles like Percy’s, would want to be.
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I just had a little bit of criticism about your review of Percy Jackson. You said that it was stupid that Percy didn’t just use his iPhone camera to see Medusa and instead just used the reflection on the back. This is unfair because it was not an iPhone he was using, it was an iPod.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.