‘Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief’: Barely strikes once

February 12, 2010

“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” may have the most unfortunate movie title since “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”


It’s too long, for starters. (What’s the matter? Didn’t have the guts to put a “Part 1” in the title?) And it indicates that the movie is about a character named Percy. Yikes.


Of course, because this is a movie about Greek mythology (though set in the present day), Percy is actually short for Perseus, the demigod who killed Medusa and rode Pegasus. Mythology – so popular with the young people today.


Still, that title still sounds like a wee bit of a marketing challenge.


But then, I’m not a parent of a kid who wants to see this movie because it’s based on the first in a kids’ series of adventure novels by Rick Riordan. I assume that the books are an attempt to trap the same publishing magic as J.K. Rowling did with the Harry Potter books.


I’m sure the publishers would argue about the Potter comparison, saying that the template is mythology and not magic: gods, demi-gods, furies and the like. But get serious: It’s pure Harry, from the revelation that teen-age Percy has powers he never knew about to the Hogwarts-like camp where he learns to use said powers to the Dumbledore-like teacher (in this case, the centaur Chiron, played by Pierce Brosnan) who helps him achieve his destiny.


It’s even directed by Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films. Which means it’s fast, flat and punchline-challenged, despite the presence of Brandon T. Jackson (who played the hilarious Alpa Chino in “Tropic Thunder”). As a satyr who has yet to earn his horns, Jackson is buried under the weight of soggy one-liners and mushy, generic dialogue.


But why should he be alone? The script by Craig Titley is all about the action sequences, with little thought to giving the dialogue even the semblance of a polish. There are plenty of opportunities for humor but the jokes just lay there, as if they’d been subjected to Medusa’s stony gaze.


The plot, such as it is, concerns an impending war between Zeus (Sean Bean) and his brother, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen and he blames Poseidon’s human offspring. If it isn’t returned in 14 days, by thunder … well, you get the idea.


Poseidon’s offspring? That would be Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), a kid with dyslexia and ADHD (but an amazing ability to hold his breath underwater for seven minutes or more at a time). He doesn’t know who his real father is or that he’s a demigod until a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s antiquities room. There, a substitute teacher turns into a Fury and attacks him, screaming for him to return the lightning bolt. Except that Percy didn’t steal it.


So Percy is hustled off to demi-god training camp by his best friend Grover (Jackson), who drags himself around their high school on a pair of crutches, it turns out, to disguise the fact that he’s actually got goat legs. The camp apparently is in those famous mountains of Long Island, given the route his mother (Catherine Keener) takes across one of the bridges of lower Manhattan.


But just as they reach the camp, they’re attacked by a minotaur sent by Hades; Harry’s, er, Percy’s mother is whisked away to Hell.


Percy must train and learn to use his abilities so he can go on a quest blah blah blah. The quest involves him, Grover (Jackson) and a daughter of Athena named Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) – in other words, Harry, Ron and Hermione.


Oh yes, and a bevy of movie stars. There’s Uma Thurman as Medusa, Rosario Dawson as Persephone and, in the film’s only funny sequence, Steve Coogan as a heavy-metal-rock-star-styled Hades.


It’s not awful – it’s just not particularly inspired. Lerman is an interesting young actor, as he showed in last year’s little seen “My One and Only,” though he has little to work with here. Neither does Jackson, who is stuck making lame jokes – on crutches, no less. And, with the exception of Coogan, the adults have apparently been instructed to play the gods as very serious people, minus any twinkle of humor. Only McKidd evinces a bit of emotion, with a moment in which he explains his lifelong absence to Percy.


There must be some fun in the literary series somewhere. But it’s been lost in the translation from page to screen – and something tells me this movie won’t be inspiring a sequel anytime soon.


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