Sunday Morning Movies: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

January 5, 2011

BBC film critic Mark Kermode and his radio listeners mockingly lampooned Chris Columbus’ latest venture Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by calling it Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins.  There is very little in the film itself to overcome that mocking comparison to the Harry Potter franchise it desperately would like to be, especially given the fact that Chris Columbus was responsible for the first two installments of that hallowed franchise.  Kermode also loves to call Columbus an accountant, which is an apt description for a man whose career is notable for having a number of successes of which precisely none contained anything approaching quality.  To say that Percy Jackson is probably his best film is to damn it with praise so faint you might as well be listening to a choir of mute Puritans.

The would-be-franchise centers around the titular Percy Jackson, played with admirable blankness by Logan Lerman.  He’s your standard outcast, “loser” high schooler who gets to live out that wish-fulfillment fantasy where there is something inherently special about you that requires no effort on your own part.  It turns out he’s a demigod, but not just any demigod, for he is the son of Poseidon and, more impressively, Catherine Keener.  In a plot point that is closer to in spirit to the twisted nature of Greek mythology than any cameo by Medusa, she’s been shacked up with an odious cliché played by Joe Pantoliano for most of Percy’s life because his disgusting stench was enough to ward off any potential enemies of her child.  Unfortunately, Sean Bean (here played by Zeus) has had his lightning bolt stolen and, as the only son of one of the Big Three (the third being Hades, of course), is the only suspect in the crime.  He is soon taken to a training camp that is probably used most of the year as a Hogwarts fat camp, where he develops his powers as well as a crush on Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who happens to be extremely intelligent and deadly serious about her education.  He is followed on his journey by his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), who reveals himself to be a satyr and his guardian protector.  When Catherine Keener is taken down to Hades by, well, Hades, Percy must go on a quest to collect blue pearls across America and travel to the underworld to retrieve her.  Annabeth realizes he needs a love interest and so promptly joins him and Grover as they drive from one set piece to another.

I like the idea of a kid-friendly fantasy franchise riffing on a Greek myth, but unfortunately it seems that everyone involved in writing Percy Jackson have made the crucial error of mistaking Clash of the Titans for Edith Hamilton.  Giant-sized gods bicker in Mount Olympus while a Hydra is turned to stone by Medusa’s severed head.  The artistic bankruptcy on display in the story is as astounding as it is depressing.  The film is visually uninteresting to a degree that rivals the first Narnia picture, and if you’re worried a few fun and fanciful moments might creep into frame, Columbus is there to squash them immediately.  For instance, the a detour to Vegas where they visit the casino Lotus and fall into a Lotus-addled stupor amounts to nothing more than a few hazy shots and Grover in a choreographed stage show.  When their magic map takes them to a deserted garden and antique store in the middle of nowhere, there’s a brief hint of amusement when you notice all those statues are from wildly different eras.  It is Medusa’s lair, and that detail would have worked much better if it stayed in the background.  Of course it isn’t 90 seconds before one of the kids calls it what it is, and just to hammer the point home, there’s an old lady running around complaining that her husband was turned to stone.  She exists only to turn to stone herself in a desperate attempt to shoehorn some tension and scares into a by-the-numbers pastiche.

Grover might be the most aggressively awful thing about the exercise, and I hasten to add that you can’t blame the actor, only pity him.  He’s the Token Black Friend, a cliché that is itself a cliché these days, and he exists only to add comic relief for audiences who confuse pop culture references and minstrel show stereotypes with humor.  When Not Another Teen Movie is more socially progressive and aware than a movie, something has gone horribly wrong.  His (brief) heroic self-sacrifice is fittingly responded to with a shrug from Percy, as though it was a forgone conclusion that he should be the one to stay forever in Hades.  Likeability is not Percy’s strong suit.

All that said, it isn’t an aggressively bad movie.  Despite being uninspired, the Hydra fight and the big finale aren’t totally unenjoyable.  Befitting a film with a medium budget (yes, $95 million is “medium” for these things), the absence of sustained star power is made up for by a string of delightful cameos, especially Rosario Dawson as Persephone and Steve Coogan as Hades.  It’s still bad, though, and the Parthenon replica in Nashville, in which one big scene takes place, sums it up best.  It’s not an unforgivably bad job, but it’s still pointless, completely derivative, and cheap in a way that only America (Hollywood) would find acceptable.  At least it isn’t as bad as the Clash of the Titans remake, praise the gods.

 

-M

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