One good thing: at least the UK title wasn’t as silly as the American title (Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief), which sounds like the tour name for a disco band.
I wanted to see this film because anything that takes an interesting modern spin on Greek mythology (and keeps it alive and fresh) is fine with me, and also because it was an adaptation of a book – it’s usually a sign that the story has been worked out in advance, and there won’t be any messing around with the narrative flow in the editing suite because they don’t know what they’ve got. However, I didn’t realise the parallels to the Harry Potter films would be so embarrassingly obvious …
Chris Columbus brought the first two Harry Potter films to uninspired but faithful life, and he’s used exactly the same template to create another adaptation of a series of books about a boy who finds out he is magical. Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) has a tough family life (his mother, Catherine Keener, is married to the slobbish Joe Pantoliano, who treats Percy badly); he discovers he has magical heritage (he is the son of Poseidon, Kevin McKidd), so goes to a special school (a summer camp for demigods hilariously called Camp Half-Blood, run by the centaur Chiron, Pierce Brosnan), and has a best friend who provides the humour (but with a difference, because he’s a sassy black kid who is also a satyr, which the Americans insist on pronouncing incorrectly as ‘say-ter’ throughout the whole film), as well as a beautiful girl friend who is the best student in the camp (but with the difference of her as the potential love interest; the only problem with the Harry Potter films is that Emma Watson is far too pretty for Rupert Grint, and she and Daniel Radcliffe look so much more like a couple), and they go on an adventure that is against school rules. It’s like they did it deliberately as in-joke for people who like to spot these things.
One of the smart things they did in the Harry Potter films was to cast good actors in the adult character roles, making the best of minor roles because the kids are in the entire film. This film makes the same smart decision by picking actors who have lots of fun in their roles: Uma Thurman is wonderful as Medusa, Steve Coogan is hilarious as Hades, Rosario Dawson is delightfully sexy as Persephone, and Brosnan has lots of fun as a centaur, something he realises while playing the role. This is to counter the fact that the kids are quite bland, which is to be expected – most American teens on film are identikit and devoid of character anyway, so what’re you gonna do?
The film goes for the mainstream blockbuster experience, so fight scenes aren’t too scary, the narrative feels not quite formulaic but more obviously novelistic (moving from one chapter to the next without smooth transition, something you wouldn’t notice reading the book), the Greek gods are watered down to wipe away the rough edges of rape and death, and the whole thing boils down to father issues and how wonderful family is (an obsession in American mainstream entertainment). However, Columbus keeps things ticking along, there are nice pieces of Greek mythology thrown in (including a Hydra, a Minotaur and a Fury), and it’s inoffensive entertainment with good CGI and some fun action. And, for bonus points, instead of using ‘For The Love Of Money’ by The O’Jays when our three heroes end up in Las Vegas (as nearly all other films and television programmes do), they use the fantastic ‘A Little Less Conversation’ by Elvis Presley, as first used by Steven Soderbergh in Ocean’s 11. In summary: not great but not bad.