(by Dustin Putman
Ever since J.K Rowling's "Harry Potter" series segued into film adaptations in 2001 to much acclaim and box-office success, there have been no shortage of studios jumping on the bandwagon that is the fantasy young adult novel. What one might assume to be a lucrative business, however, has turned over more flops than hits. From 2007's "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising" to 2008's "City of Ember" to 2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," finding the next "Harry Potter" franchise has been more difficult than anticipated. For every financial achievement (2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), there is a really good picture that deserved more attention than what audiences gave it (2007's "The Golden Compass"). Whether "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" has what it takes to live past its first entry is still up in the air, but, as adapted from Rick Riordan's novel by director Chris Columbus (himself director of 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") and screenwriter Craig Titley (2003's "Cheaper by the Dozen"), it certainly stands as a promising start. Article continues below
When 16-year-old Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is attacked during a class field trip to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mrs.Dodds (Maria Olsen), a substitute-teacher-turned-winged-creature, he is finally let in on a little secret that has been kept from him all his life. The son of human mother Sally (Catherine Keener) and god of the sea Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), Percy is a so-called half-blood believed by the all-evil Hades (Steve Coogan) to have stolen a lightning bolt from the all-powerful Zeus (Sean Bean) with the powers of world domination. Percy knows not of this alleged lightning theft, but when Sally is captured and held for ransom in the underworld, he and two friends—protector and satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and fellow half-blood Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of warrior goddess Athena—must go on a cross-country journey to find three magical pearls that will gain them entry into Hell. Once there, Percy hopes to convince Hades to let his mother go.
Imperfect, yes, but also both suitably imaginative and entertaining, "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" works as action-adventure razzle-dazzle, coming-of-age tale, and beginners' lesson on Greek mythology. The narrative changes made to Rick Riordan's novel take some getting used to early on, but soon director Chris Columbus has ably carved out a stand-alone place for the movie. From then on, book-to-screen comparisons are rendered null and void as one gets caught up in Percy's quest to find the hidden pearls, save his mom, and come to terms with his out-of-the-ordinary place in the world. With Grover and Annabeth steadfastly by his side, Percy's fantasy-laden travels are fun. Their first destination at Auntie Em's Garden Emporium is a showstopper, perhaps even the highlight of the whole film, as the kids are besieged by snake-haired gargon Medusa (Uma Thurman), her stare enough to turn anyone into stone. A stop at a Nashville replica of the Parthenon is next, along with a run-in with a fire-breathing hydra dragon, while their third fixed location is Las Vegas' Lotus Hotel and Casino. Clever, toe-tapping use of Lady GaGa's "Poker Face" is a terrific addition.
By and large, the action set-pieces are impressive, a learned example of how to shoot and edit such scenes with cohesion while incorporating solid, even radiant, visual effects work into the mix. Despite a PG rating, the film isn't afraid to go scary or dark, its portrayal of the underworld, demonic creatures, etc. blessedly non-sugarcoated. Where the picture does stumble is in its touches of scattershot silliness—i.e., Percy learns his mom married deadbeat stepfather Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano) because his pungent smell helped to hide Percy's half-blood aroma from the his enemies—and a third act set on Mount Olympus that overstays its welcome. It would have been better—and less visually tacky—had most of the gods remained unseen. Instead, the climax results in cornball daddy issues as Percy meets father Poseidon, as well as an anti-war message that is well-meaning but too obviously on-the-nose and preachy.
Logan Lerman (2009's "Gamer") is unable to consistently sell his role as Percy Jackson and personify the character's issues and conflicts. The young actor, talented though he has been in the past, has particular trouble in close-up reaction shots. He's better, it deserves to be said, in his ordinary interactions with Grover and Annabeth, the three of them forming a tight-knit and root-worthy bond. Brandon T. Jackson (2010's "Tooth Fairy") wavers, as he should, from being Percy's peer and an authoritative figure meant to look out for him. As Annabeth, Alexandra Daddario (2005's "The Squid and the Whale") acts with striking wide eyes at the onset before warming up to the viewer and other protagonists. Of the three leads, Daddario is the most eye-catching. Catherine Keener (2009's "Where the Wild Things Are") effortlessly essays another caring, flawed mother role as Sally, while Uma Thurman (2008's "The Life Before Her Eyes") is downright brilliant in her scenery-chewing cameo as Medusa. The upcoming remake of "The Clash of the Titans" has its work cut out, because it's going to take a miracle in order to beat Thurman's chilling portrayal of the snaky villainess.
"Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is the first in a series of five books from fiction writer Rick Riordan, but this adaptation wisely ties up the story's loose ends and doesn't even bother to introduce the book's cliffhanging conclusion. Keeping in mind the unpredictability of the family market as it pertains to literary adaptations, that's a wise decision on the part of director Chris Columbus. A sequel might raise the stakes, deepen the characters, and more quickly find its footing, but this particular film also can stand on its own if the film's financial returns aren't strong enough for the studio to commit to a second feature. The script might be uneven, the dialogue at times stilted, and the denouement shaky, but "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" stands apart from like-minded efforts with a creativity and sense of well-paced fun that cannot be denied.