Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (DVD)

Beware the 30-percent-chance-of-humidity thief.

With a the recent remake of Clash of the Titans, a Thor movie on the way, and God of War III bringing the brutal violence to video gamers, the old-timey myths are hot stuff these days. In Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, based on the best-selling book by Rick Riordan, the Greek pantheon blasts into the modern age with the tale of an ordinary kid who gets caught up in the ancient gods and their eternal conflicts.

Zeus (Sean Bean, National Treasure), the king of the gods, is not happy. Someone has stolen his lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon ever created. If it’s not returned to him soon, he will declare war against the other gods, and this will tear the universe to pieces. Meanwhile, in New York City, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma) is an ordinary teenager, who enjoys swimming and hanging out with his pal Grover (Brandon T. Jackson, Tooth Fairy). When supernatural monsters show up and try to kill him, Percy learns the truth. He’s a demigod, the son of a mortal woman and Poseidon, god of the sea. After several monster attacks, Percy loses his mother and barely escapes with his life. Grover, who is actually Percy’s protector, takes Percy to Camp Half-Blood, a home for other demigods-in-training. There, Percy meets Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario, White Collar), the daughter of Athena. Percy is still accused of stealing the lightning bolt, so he, Grover, and Annabeth set off on a cross-country trek to rescue Percy’s mom from the underworld and, hopefully, bring peace to Olympus.

If nothing else, you can’t accuse the filmmakers, including director Chris Columbus (Home Alone), of thinking small. The movie takes us from New York to Nashville to Vegas to L.A., and from the demigod camp to Hades and all the way to Olympus. There are centaurs, furies, satyrs, and other traditional fantasy creatures. It works in a way, because each time a familiar monster or legend appears, it’s interesting to see how they are worked into this world and its own continuity. Percy is a quick learner, and in no time he’s learned all kinds of cool swordfighting moves and gained all kinds of magic powers. This makes for plenty of elaborate action set pieces. The movie is a bright and colorful fantasy, moving along at a quick pace—perhaps too quick for its own good.

We film critics like to whine about pacing when a movie feels too slow. By introducing a breakneck pace right at the start, though, this movie suffers the opposite problem. Percy learns he is a demigod once monsters start attacking him. This is good, as it introduces a sense of urgency to the story. Percy not only discovers important truths about himself, but he must also act on them immediately. Too bad, then, that this sense of urgency is lost as Percy goes to the camp. There, he meets new friends, enjoys some training, meets a potential love interest, and participates a rousing and lengthy action scene involving a game of capture the flag. All this helps establish the characters and their fantasy world, but that sense of urgency is lost. The whole time Percy was at the camp, wide-eyed and smiling at the sense of wonder around him, I kept asking why he wasn’t upset about his mother and her fate. Later, when Percy and his friends finally begin their quest to rescue her, their journeys are continually interrupted or slowed down to make room for character moments and comic relief. Character development and humor are good things, of course, but in this case they’re out of balance with the rest of the plot.

By comparison, look at the first Harry Potter film, also directed by Chris Columbus. In that film, the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone is always present in the background, but it’s not pushed to the forefront until about halfway through. This gives Harry a opportunity to explore his new surroundings and get to know his friends, without constantly being in danger. By putting Percy, his friends, and his mom in danger right at the start, the film lacks any reason for the characters to have any breathing room. When the characters stop to talk, the audience wonders why they aren’t in a rush. These fantasy adventure epics normally have escalating tension, so that the intensity and danger builds over time. This lets us invest in the people and immerse ourselves in the setting before the end of the world is at stake. Percy’s adventures begin with life and death on the line, and this throws off the pacing of the rest of the movie.

Does the above mean I hated the movie? Hardly. There’s a lot to like about it. Again, the creators were not thinking small. The swordfights are nicely choreographed, and captured with the usual “shaky-cam” tricks seen in recent action blockbusters. The CGI environments really impress. The CGI creatures might look a little too CGI, but they’re nicely designed, and each monster is varied from the next, so they don’t all look alike. The final confrontation between Percy and the actual lightning thief is a good one as well, a thrilling combination of fighting and effects.

Logan Lerman does a fine job as the titular hero. Sure, he never seems distraught or concerned about losing his mom to the underworld, but that’s more the fault of the script than it is the performance. Mostly, his Percy is this good-natured guy who’s trying to the right thing while not being overwhelmed by the craziness around him. Brandon Jackson fills the sidekick/comic relief role well enough, even though some of his screwball antics might be too over-the-top for some viewers. Annabeth’s character is inconsistent and harder to pin down. We’re told that she’s a master strategist, and she’s set up as the brains of the group. Her so-called strategy, though, usually consists of a few cool swordfighting moves before Percy steps in to save the day. Also, we’re told that she’s rarely been outside the demigod camp and is not familiar with the human world. Once there, however, she can drive a car and she says stuff like, “Let’s get out of here before someone calls Homeland Security.” It seems to me that she should be the fish-out-of-water character, who viewing the human world with the same wonder and amazement that Percy views the world of the gods. We never see this, though. Still, actress Alexandra Daddario sells the “fierce determination” thing nicely, and her final scene with Percy is a good one.

As in the Harry Potter series, the young cast is supported by a gaggle of well known and highly talented actors. Chief among these is Sean Bean, perfectly cast as Zeus. When he stands up and demands, “Silence!” you know that everyone in the room shuts their yaps immediately. Others in supporting roles include Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye), Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction), Joe Pantoliano (The Goonies), Katherine Keener (Where the Wild Things Are), Rosario Dawson (Clerks II), Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder), and Kevin McKidd (Rome). These acting veterans bring a lot of cool quirks to their roles, elevating their small roles above the material.

For this review, DVD Verdict received an advanced screener disc, which may or may not be different from the ones on store shelves. The picture quality is crisp and clear, emphasizing the many bright, vivid colors. The Vegas sequence is a visual standout, with colors and detail so vivid they’re almost like 3-D. The sound is even better. The booming thunder effects that open the movie roar out of all the speakers, creating a truly atmospheric, immersive aural experience. The extras start off with a short featurette, in which Riordan and Columbus talk about adapting the book into movie form. There are five deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and an interactive quiz you take with your remote to find out which Greek god you’re most like. (It says I’m from “The House of Hermes.” Yay me.) The movie also comes with a descriptive audio track, in which a female narrator describes the action on screen for the benefit of the visually impaired.

The theatrical trailer is par for the course for theatrical trailers, promising fantasy adventure thrills and offering glimpses of some of the big special effects and set pieces. Right in the middle of it, though, there’s this shot of a car with a giant chain gun attached to it, shooting at everything in sight as it races down the street. This insane-looking scene was the number one thing I wanted to see when I put in the disc, and guess what? It’s not in the movie. Bummer.

What to make of this one? On one hand, it offers a lot of action thrills and fantasy adventure fun. On the other hand, a number of narrative missteps keep it from being as great as it could have been. The real question, one on the minds of the movie’s marketing and advertising types, is whether I’d be interested in seeing sequels, and having this thing go the full-blown franchise route. There’s enough here that I liked that yes, I would dig seeing more adventures with these characters.

The Verdict

If you wish to avoid the wrath of the gods, make it a rental.

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