Monday, April 26, 2010

Movie Mondays – Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief

For the last few years, my younger friend and I have made a tradition of seeing Harry Potter movies together. Now that the franchise is nearing its end, we've been on the lookout for a similar series to lock into for our movie nights. Nothing could ever top the HP oeuvre, but we have hopes that something will turn up sufficient enough to fill that void.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief (hitherto PJ) might be it.

Lord knows the producers tried to position it that way. Trailers lead with the statement "from the director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets…" This would be referring to Christopher Columbus, who did indeed shepherd these two books to their big screen debuts. Never mind that Chamber of Secrets is widely regarded as the worse HP film of the lot. But Sorcerer's Stone was a lovely introduction to the HP world and a delightful movie at large. Columbus brings a childlike mentality and vision to his movies and he definitely knows how to draw out his child stars. He just isn't the guy you want to mature a series, not seeming to be able to raise the material to the next level. Hence the mess that is Chamber of Secrets.

But he's a great selling point to kick off a new series like PJ, a franchise desperately trying to be HP's heir.

Like my first experience with HP, I haven't read any of the Percy Jackson books before seeing the film. I've never liked a movie based on a novel when I've read the novel first but I usually like both if I've seen the movie first. Jurassic Park was a fantastic movie and then I read the book, which I found to be phenomenal. One enhanced the other. But, conversely, I thought The Firm was a nonstop thrill ride when I read it and was salivating for what turned out to be a travesty of a movie. And, ever since I caved and read the entire HP canon (right after The Goblet of Fire movie because I couldn't wait to see what happened next) I haven't fully liked a film version of the series. So I've learned my lesson: watch first, read at leisure.

From the start, PJ looked entertaining, not the least due to the adults peppering the trailer. Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Kevin McKidd, and Melina Kanakaredes along with others lent themselves to the Olympian pantheon. Quite frankly, those first three pretty much guarantee that I'm at least going to look twice at the thing.

A brief summary of our story. Percy (Logan Lerman) is a NYC teenager struggling with a cesspit of a stepfather (Joe Pantoliano) and a mundane teenage life. His best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson, and no, he isn't blue) is lame and uses crutches to support his weak legs. During a class trip to the Met (hello lovely!) headed by Percy's prescient if crippled (lot of that going around) teacher Mr. Bruner (Pierce Brosnan), Percy is attacked by a museum curator transformed into a mythical harpy (I've met some tight-assed curators in my time, but that's a bit too literal). Turns out, Percy is the son of Ares, God of War (Kevin McKidd), and is a half-god himself. Since the rumor mill on Olympus claims that Percy has stolen Zeus' (Sean Bean) lightning bolt, all manner of nasty things are now pursuing the kid. He escapes with Grover's crutch-less help (he's a faun!) and a revelatory assist from Mr. Bruner (he's a centaur!) eventually fleeing to a Hogwarts-like school in the forest where the spawned and abandoned children of the gods are trained to be warriors. Oh, and along the way, his mother (Catharine Keener) is kidnapped. By Hades (Steve Coogan).

Needless to say, our intrepid hero and his sidekicks – who now include Athena's (Melina Kanakaredes) fierce and passionate daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) – decide to go off on their own and rescue Mom and capture the lightning thief in order to clear Percy's name.

No problem.

A mixture of new-school tech and old school monsters, this is Clash of the Titans-lite (Harry Hamlin version). It clicks right along with numerous action and chase sequences before we even get within glance of the final denouement. Logan Lerman was impressive in 3:10 to Yuma and has the promise (and looks) of a young DiCaprio. He ably portrays a young man exploring his unexpected identity and coming to terms with parental absence, even if here it was more thanks to an edict from the king of the gods that more realistic parental error. All three young actors go for broke and while Grover's frequent comic asides seemed to me too forced to be authentic, I'm sure the average 15-year-old thought them hysterical.

I did enjoy the modernization of the monsters' lairs. Medusa's domain made me think of a shop called Poor Richards on Route 32 along the Delaware River that sports a similar statue garden. No snakes there though. And the idea of Las Vegas being a bastion of forgetfulness was clever.

Pierce Brosnan as a centaur was only slightly less silly that Pierce as a singer. Still, if you're going to be taught warcraft, it might as well be from double O. There are swords and mock battles and real fights and the kids get bang up enough to the point that "please, just a little bit of peril" crossed my mind. The other adult cameos for the most part were too short to be significant. Except for Coogan. Playing Hades, Lord of the Underworld as a burnt-out rock star, Coogan stole the show. Worth the price of admission right there.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a far cry from the Harry Potter franchise. It's unfortunate that so many "children" fantasy flicks will be held up to and likely fall short of the HP standard. That's the risk you run, especially when you blatantly court that audience. On its own, however, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is an entertaining start to what could be an enjoyable franchise on its own merits. No matter what the gods say.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language.

Disclaimer: Somewhere I've got the receipts to prove that I paid for the tickets on this one, all by my lonesome, and received no inducement or bribery to do so. Also the snacks.

Recommendation: I'm going to start adding a recommendation to these reviews. Somewhat obviously, today it's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The best HP of the lot to date, it's layered, complicated, intriguing, suspenseful, heavily doused with thematic images, revelatory for the mythology of the series, and beautifully shot. If you've never seen or heard of it, well, you probably live in a cave. Check it out.

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