There is a litany of similarities between Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and the first Harry Potter film that goes way beyond their shared director, Chris Columbus. Like Harry, Percy Jackson’s life is turned upside-down when he learns of his special background and destiny. He realizes that things around him aren’t as they appear, and that he has super-human abilities. His protector/friend brings him to a place where he is trained to use his gifts with others of his kind. Eventually he finds himself on a quest with his two friends: one a humourous and loyal guy, and the other a smart and capable girl. Together, they face monsters and survive traps in order to save the day. (Oh, and visions of his dead mom are also involved.) Unfortunately, this movie seems like a cheap American knockoff of Rowling’s modern classic, and that definitely diminishes it. Nevertheless, after trying to make it through the novel on which it was based, I was really happy to find that the movie was more fun than the book. The movie had a brisk pace and likeable young actors, while the book was pretty pedestrian as far as fantasy stories go.
This story’s premise is that the world of Greek mythology, with its gods and monsters, is secretly hiding in plain sight within the continental US. That kind of fantasy was bound to require a lot of special effects, which were only so-so. Many of the creatures were clearly CGI animation lacking in realism (but I guess Potter’s three-headed dog wasn’t too convincing either, not to mention the troll in the lavatory). Still, there were a few OK effects in Lightning Thief (the many headed Hydra wasn’t too shabby) and a few other effects weren’t bad. When Percy whipped out some of his demi-god powers, I was duly impressed.
Logan Lerman (remember him from the short-lived TV series Jack and Bobby?) is very likeable as Percy, playing equal parts awkward teen and noble hero. His best friend, protector and sidekick, Grover, was a lot of fun, quipping jokes and enjoying himself between girlish screams and brave gestures (he gives Ron Weasley a run for his galleons), and there were numerous cameos to boot. Pierce Brosnan plays Percy’s instructor, Chiron, Uma Thurman (even more campy than when she played Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin, if you can believe it!) as Medusa, and Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd and Sean Bean as various gods. (Oh, we can’t leave out Catherine Keener as Percy’s mom, and Joe Pantoliano as his odious step-father, Gabe Ugliano — how’s that for an obvious name. BTW, there’s a satisfying little epilogue featuring Joey Pants’s character, so stay for the credits.) It seems clear that Columbus wanted to pad the cast list the same way that they did in the Potter series.
The bottom line with this movie is that it’s lighthearted fun. Between the fight scenes (all sword, little blood), the monsters (nothing too scary, though Medusa always causes me to grip the armrest tighter), the road trip, and the lightly-encoded family message, all the elements come together in a reasonably satisfying mix. It will be interesting to compare this portrayal to similar characters and adventures on a larger-scale in the Clash of the Titans movie that comes to theatres next month. Until then, this one still gets a 4 out of 5.