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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.