If motion pictures that astound you or break new artistic ground are the reason you go to the movies, “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is not for you. But then you already knew that, didn’t you?
As directed by the risk-averse and reliably commercial Chris Columbus, “Percy Jackson” has standard Hollywood product so written all over it that the fact that it is unadventurous and uninteresting can be figured out from the film’s advertising and promotion material alone.
What can’t be known without seeing the film, however, is the only-in-Hollywood risk the producers, director Columbus and writer Craig Titley have taken. They started with a hugely popular book with a considerable built-in fan base and discarded and changed big chunks of it in a brazen attempt to, yes, make even more money than the original would have. Can you believe that? Yes, you can.
The book, a young-adult novel written by Rick Riordan, is the first in a five-volume series that has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for more than 130 weeks. Though the first part of its title sounds like the name of a 1950s R&B group, it neatly encapsulates the books’ story line: Young Percy Jackson discovers and has to deal with being a demigod, the son of Poseidon, one of the Olympians, and a mortal woman.
As conceived by Riordan to feature a young hero with parental issues who is marked as the chosen one by his peers, “The Lightning Thief” inevitably reads like a Harry Potter knockoff. Though it’s written with genuine narrative drive and a sense of its core audience, “Lightning,” unlike the Potter books, has been unable to expand beyond that base: If you know a 10-year-old boy, the chances are you know a Percy Jackson fan.
But 10-year-old boys, even the rabidly fanatical ones, are not a big enough market share for this film. So not only have the filmmakers changed Percy’s age from 12 to 17, they’ve deliberately restructured the plot to prioritize the action moments and emphasize the grotesqueness of mythological beings, all with an eye toward attracting an older male demographic.
The problem is not that the “Lightning Thief” makers eliminated or changed numerous key plot points and scenes, but that they’ve done it without any particular grace or skill. This is generic filmmaking at its most banal, a simple-minded simplification of a not overwhelmingly complex book.
One of the film’s more effective changes is to jump-start the plot, informing us right off the bat of the bad blood between Zeus (Sean Bean) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). It involves Zeus’ feared lightning bolt, which Zeus suspects Poseidon’s son Percy of having stolen.
Cut to Percy (Logan Lerman) being bored in a New York high school, hanging out with best pal Grover (“Tropic Thunder’s” Brandon T. Jackson) and being upset with his mom (a wasted Catherine Keener) for settling for a lump of a boyfriend.
Everything changes fast on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum when one of Percy’s teachers morphs into a grotesque Fury and tries to kill him. Grover, who turns out to be a half-goat satyr, spirits him away to Camp Half Blood (a knockoff of the X-Men’s Xavier Institute) where a half-horse centaur named Chiron (Pierce Brosnan, looking even sillier than he did singing in “Mamma Mia!”) lets him know that his absentee dad is none other than Poseidon, king of the sea.
Here Percy meets the fetching Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and she, he and Grover go off on a quest to find Percy’s mom, who is trapped in the underworld after being pulverized by the Minotaur (don’t even ask). Along the way, the trio meet Medusa (a chilly Uma Thurman), fight the horrific many-headed Hydra, eat of the lotus and meet Hades and his overheated wife, Persephone (the amusing team of Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson, the only actors to emerge unscathed).
There’s clearly a lot of classical mythology to be learned from “The Lightning Thief,” but that’s the best that can be said of it. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” is what the poet Dante put on Hades’ gates, and unwary adults tempted by this film should take that line very much to heart.