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Catching Up With 2010: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

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July 6th, 2010 at 12:16 am

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For many years now Chris Columbus and I have had an understanding: He can suck as much as he likes and in return I can tell people just how much he totally sucks. Although I am forced to begrudgingly admit that his Harry Potter movies laid the foundation for other, better directors to shine later on, they were nevertheless bloated messes, and his disastrous adaptation of Rent made my list of the Worst Films of the Decade. So it was with some trepidation that in my quest to catch up with the films of 2010 I watched his latest children’s fantasy adaptation Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. But I’m glad I did, because for the first time in almost 20 years I am reminded of why he’s such a prominent director in the first place.

Movie Still: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Step-ball-change and stab! Stab! Pivot, pivot… Jazz hands, Percy…! Jazz hands!

Let me put it this way: When Columbus directed Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets, he demonstrated such reverence for the source material that it was like he made an enormous and highly-detailed sand castle, and when he was done he just gathered everyone around to gloat. “Look at my sand castle! Isn’t it beautiful? Do you see? No, don’t touch… You’ll just screw it all up.” But Percy Jackson doesn’t feel like that at all. Percy Jackson & The Olympians feels like Chris Columbus built another beautifully impressive sandcastle, gathered everyone ‘round, then reared up his hands in a claw-like motion, cackled maniacally and then stomped all over his creation like a giddy Godzilla. With its straightforward heist film mentality this movie has no time to take itself too seriously. It’s too busy killing Hydras and screwing hookers in Vegas. This movie wasn’t directed by Bicentennial Man Chris Columbus. This was made by the Adventures in Babysitting guy, and I think we’d all forgotten how much we missed this director of movies for rebellious little boys. Home Alone anyone?

Movie Still: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

America’s obsession with the iPhone claims yet another victim.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief shares with the Harry Potter series an inexplicable love of unwieldy names, but doesn’t waste nearly as much time getting started. Gamer’s Logan Lerman plays Jackson, a high schooler with a knack for swimming but also a learning disability that keeps him from being too awesome for his own good. He has a wonderful mother played by Catherine Keener, which makes one wonder if this isn’t all just an elaborate sequel to Where the Wild Things Are, and one of those ass-slapping “Get-Me-A-Beer” stepfathers, played by Joe Pantoliano, who exists only so his uppance can come during the closing credits. Before long, Percy is attacked by monsters who think he stole Zeus’s lightning bolt, supposedly the most powerful weapon in the universe. Percy’s best friend Grover (Tropic Thunder’s Brandon T. Jackson) turns out to be a satyr charged with his protection, his favorite teacher Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) is actually a centaur in disguise and his absentee dad is none other than Poseidon (“Rome’s” Kevin McKidd, always great). When his mother is killed by a Minotaur it’s up to Percy to steal some magical MacGuffins and, if possible, find the real “Lightning Thief” in order to get her out of the underworld. Saving the world will probably come up eventually, but hey, according to the movies everyone has to save the world at some point, right?

Movie Still: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

No no no… Percy, don’t you get it? What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. That means you’re not supposed to steal anything.

One of the things that Chris Columbus never seemed comfortable with in the Harry Potter movies was all that pesky schoolwork, but that’s not an issue in Percy Jackson. Percy barely has an opportunity to cheat in a Capture the Flag game before he’s ditching Bulfinch’s Greek Mythology Summer Camp for Wayward Demigods (Look, I forgot the name, all right?) with Grover and Annabeth, daughter of Athena (played with adorable warlike exuberance by Alexandia Daddario), on a quest to storm the gates of the Hell with the help of magical artifacts scattered across the continental United States. These episodic adventures are fun, violent and surprisingly comfortable with sexuality (Apparently satyrs get all the chicks… Who knew?). As such, the 11 year old who still resides in the back of my head loved it. Yes, it’s stupid that Percy has a ball point pen that turns into a sword. But they never dwell on this or even try to explain it, so it’s stupid and awesome. The action moves briskly from set piece to set piece like Columbus couldn’t wait to see which these enormously expensive toys he could break next. It’s not high drama, it’s just kinda fun.

Movie Still: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

“Water” you doing with that trident, Percy?

But what I love best about Percy Jackson & The Olympians (not that I’m giving it four stars, mind you) is that it doesn’t shy away from all of life’s various unpleasantries. For some reason, kids movies in the 1980’s were more comfortable placing children in actual jeopardy. Look at Monster Squad, a movie about a group of little tykes who band together to keep Dracula from getting a glowing green amulet. Sure, it sounded silly, but it also had 11 year olds shooting The Creature from the Black Lagoon with a shotgun, severing The Wolfman’s limbs and Dracula himself lifting up a little girl by the face and calling her a bitch. Percy Jackson never goes that far, but it feels like it’s in the same spirit, much like Columbus’s earlier screenplays for Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes, and as such the danger feels unusually dangerous for a family film of the modern era. The movie is also surprisingly comfortable with allowing parents to be the object of abject hatred by their children. Greek Gods are not allowed to have any contact with their kids (it was Zeus’s idea, and apparently he’s a dick), and much of the plot revolves around taking them to task for their absentee parenting. At some point every child has to confront their parents, and in Percy Jackson these moments are satisfyingly dramatized.

Movie Still: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

“Hail HYDRA! Immortal HYDRA! Cut off one limb and two more shall take its place!”
“Dude, shut up!”
“Oh come on, when am I going to get a better
chance to say this?”

Percy Jackson & The Olympians is a Three-Star movie at best, but man-oh-man has it been a long time since Chris Columbus directed a Three-Star movie, so it’s worth praising. It’s not immune to bouts of silliness, some of the stunt-casting is distracting and the identity of the real “lightning thief” is so obvious that they might as well have put it in the title, but I had more fun than I ever thought I would. I have no way of knowing whether this is a faithful adaptation of the source material (I can only imagine the books had a little more depth than this) but it’s a fun movie either way. If only we could say that much for The Last Airbender.

  • Anthony

    I wish there’s going to be a 2nd movie. the first movie was the greatest i had seen in a long time, also the Book they cut out a lot of characters but in the second movie , they are going to put more .

  • Eliza

    Are you serious? You wrote all this to critisize a movie and a really great director? Fine this is your opinion, but I’m here to inform you that there are people who actually LIKE this movie but HATE it when you so totally screw it up by writing those things. If you don’t life it FINE but keep it to yourself. I admit, the things you wrote under the pictures where sort of funny, but the rest… I don’t think so. Although, I have to admit you are good at writing, just for the record. But please next time use it to write something less humiliating.

  • http://www.geekscape.net William Bibbiani

    I appreciate your kind words about my writing style, but I am concerned that you missed the point of the review, which is that I not only “liked” Percy Jackson, but that I thought it was Columbus’s best film in over 20 years (back when he consistently made really, really good movies). That’s why I wrote the belated review in the first place: to single it out for praise, because I felt that Columbus hasn’t truly earned it in a very long time.

    As for the criticism, well, part of being a critic is criticizing things, and Percy Jackson is not so perfect that it is immune to criticism, nor is Chris Columbus. If everyone kept their criticisms to themselves there would be no standards of quality, and no need whatsoever for anybody to spend the effort needed to make good movies (or indeed good books, music, food, political choices, you name it).

    I appreciate your response, and I’m glad you liked the movie too, but let’s not forget that you just used the power of criticism to criticize criticizing (and of course that I’m using the same power of criticism in my reply). Ain’t criticism grand?

  • laura

    I love the book but i got to say the movie wasnt so great. if you didnt read the book i guess it was pretty good but it shouldnt be called the lightning theif, it was to wrong to have the same name. they totally left out Ares(the god of war who gave percy the backpack that had th lighning bolt in it and he tried to kill percy when he came out of the underworld), percy used the flying shoes luke gave him (percy cant fly because Zues would nock him out of the sky, grover was supposed to wear the shoes and they would try to drag them into tartarus), percy killed luke (luke is supposed to try to ill percy back at camp after he returns from his quest with a pit scorpion and luke tells percy that kronos is rising and hes working for him and he leaves camp and left percy to die but percy gets to camp and is healed), everyone knows percy is the son of posiden( the reason why everyone helps kronos rise to take over olympus is that their godly parent wouldnt claim them and they were forced to stay in the hermes cabin and they felt their parent didnt care about them),there was no hydra in the book and they left out procrusties and the cimera, percy passed out after fighting the Minotar(grover was supposed to pass out and percy had to carry hiw across the border line of the camp and that made problems for grover with the council of cloven elders), the camp boarder line had a fancy archway(its supposed to be thalias pine tree), and the whole theme of the movie was finding the stupid pearls to get out of the underworld (the pearls only take up one page of the book when percy jumps out of a building into a lake to escape the cimera). Oh and the cast is all wrong, Annabeth is supposed to have blond hair, the kids are supposed to be 12 years old NOT 18, I could keep going on and on but my fingers are getting tired. I dont see how they can ever make the other books work as movies without redoing the whole first movie. Oh and for all those people who call rick riordan stupid because the movie sucked, you can just shut up because he didnt make the stupid movie, he wrote the awesome book that got made into a movie thats toatally wrong.

  • laura

    oh and percy chose his mom to take out of the underworld(hes suppposed to choose grover), and hades the ruler of the underworld wanted war in the movie(in the book he just says that that is just what everyone would expect, but why would he want more people in his realm it was already crouded enough)

  • twiggfrost

    HEY! i absolutely adored this movie, and you’re just a hater :P anyways praise to the best actors and actresses: logan lerman (so cute. i could just stare into his eyes forever and ever…), alex daddario (brava, girl! you rock athena girl!), and brandon jackson 9the totally hilarious satyr dude… :D).
    i am in love… with logan :D

  • Richard Smith

    “Great special effects but I just could not get past this Hollywood preoccupation with having to make every hero an American, and set every film in America, no matter whether it spoils the movie or not. But in this film they made it one degree more ridiculous by portraying the inheritor of Poseidon’s powers inexplicably as a New York jew (Logan Lerman). Still, at least he got the brunette goyische shiksa in the end. And no doubt, if Chris Columbus ever remakes “The Ten Commandments” he’ll make sure Moses has a broad Welsh accent, just to balance things up a bit. “

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