Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) hasn’t had a particularly easy life. His father left before he was a year old and he grew up in the home of a unfeeling stepfather (Joe Pantoliano) and his put upon mother (Catherine Keener). School hasn’t been much better as a combination of dyslexia and ADHD has made any sort of progress a stroke of luck as much as anything else. But when one of his teachers grows wings and tries to kill him, Percy realizes that all of those extremely typical fictional teenager complaints can really only mean one thing: he is the son of the Greek God, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd).
Just about every kids adventure film based on a book for the past 10 years has been compared to the “Harry Potter” franchise in one way or another. It’s very easy (and, generally, very lazy on the part of the reviewers) to do it that way, trying to find any connection that shows how one so obviously follows from the other. But you can be forgiven when something is so transparently derivative as Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series.
Percy and his friends, like Luke (Jake Abel) and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), are the children of gods, leaving them imbued with powers above and beyond mortal men. Powers that they go to their own private camp to learn how to use at the, er, hooves of a grizzled centaur (Pierce Brosnan) in a secret, magical world that lives on next door to ours but which we normal people never notice.
The plot of the first installment of the series (which follows one year each of Percy’s schooling as a demi-god, though the film version has sped his age up to 16 or so) is a fairly typical hero’s journey combined with the gifts of easy, unearned power that make typical superhero fantasies so potent. It’s no wonder they’ve been the adolescent power fantasy of choice for so long, the idea that you could just wake up one day and find out you can do fantastic things. That you are secretly special.
“Percy Jackson” positively reeks of this sort of thing, as Percy discovers that his ADHD is actually battle reflexes, marking him as a natural warrior, able to defeat even camp overachiever Annabeth despite having roughly a decade less experience.
The journey part comes when Percy’s mother is captured by Hades (Steve Coogan) in order to force Percy to give up Zeus’ (Sean Bean) stolen Lightning Bolt so that he can cast his brother down, despite the fact that Percy doesn’t have it and doesn’t know who does. Percy has decided to go to Hades and explain that he doesn’t have it, and despite how transparently stupid and ill-thought out his plan is, he quickly gets lots of help from his friends to accomplish his quest.
What follows is about an hour of Percy, Annabeth and his Satyr protector Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) traveling around the country in a journey that has nothing to do with the story’s main conflict or its main antagonists and has only marginally to do with his goal of rescuing his mother. The main point is to re-purpose classical Greek adventures to the modern day and eat up time. It is unbelievably ill-thought out.
The hope seems to be that if they can throw enough adventure and monsters at the audience’s way, we won’t notice that a lot of what the heroes do is frankly stupid. Unfortunately, Chris Columbus (first two “Harry Potter” movies) is the director of choice for this new would-be franchise and all of the faults he brought to his “Harry Potter” films are evident here starting with his complete inability to build any sort of visual tension in his films whatsoever. His look remains as reassuringly uninspired as it has since his “Home Alone” days and much of the effects look about 10 years out of date.
He doesn’t get much help from his young stars either. Lerman is plucky enough for an action hero but any attempt at emoting is wasted while Daddario is just a walking plank of wood, a poster child for the dangers of casting for looks. Only Jackson offers any sort of charisma, though he is mainly around for fast-talking comic relief, meaning he is often (intentionally or not) channeling Martin Lawrence or young Eddie Murphy.
The supporting cast is actually quite well-employed, particularly Uma Thurman’s deadly Medusa and Rosario Dawson’s Persephone, the universe’s most pissed off house wife. And the conceptualizing of Steve Coogan’s Hades as a sort of demonic Robert Plant is actually a stroke of near-genius. But a lot of the cast members, like Keener and Brosnan, are much more hit and miss, which sums up the film as well.
Except for an extended montage sequence at a Vegas casino no one ever checks out from, most of the quest is fairly flat. That sequence, however, is about the only moment where the fun and invention the film is going for manages to come out. No sooner does it arrive then it’s gone, trailing after the heroes in their stolen Maserati, back to a world of obvious references and extremely dull action sequences.
It’s hard to tell how much of that is Riordan and how much is Columbus, but neither of them come out looking particularly good. “Percy Jackson” is simply uninspired in every single meaning of the word. It’s probably the crassest, most obviously derivative work of this sort since “Eragon.”
Kids and fans of the books won’t care; the film is the typically faithful adaptation you expect from Columbus. If they have their way, the rest of the series will no doubt be along. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, I’m sure we’ll all meet again for “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Search for More Money.”