'Percy Jackson' aims for godhood but has to settle for staying Earthbound
Can Chris Columbus strike 'Harry Potter' gold a second time?
Before you read this review, you may want to refer to the opening paragraphs of my Chris Columbus interview for some personal disclosure. If you choose not to take my word on this one, I'll refer you instead to the always-articulate James Rocchi, whose feelings fairly closely mirror my own, and who has no connection to the filmmakers at all.
Let's start with a simple statement: nothing is going to be "the next 'Harry Potter.'"
When Jo Rowling wrote the first few books in the "Harry Potter" series, she wasn't breaking bold new ground. She didn't invent a genre. She didn't come up with the idea of magic wands or wizards or even a Chosen One having to learn his role in a larger destiny with the help of various mentors.
Allow me to restate Joseph Campbell's definition of the monomyth:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
Sounds familiar, right? It should, since it has basically swallowed pop culture whole. I'd argue that George Lucas (who also didn't create a genre or a storyline or his character archetypes) was the one who started us down that path in terms of modern pop culture. The success of "Star Wars" changed things in much the same way that the success of "Harry Potter" has impacted the past decade. All Rowling did was tell her story well, invest some genuine feeling into her characters, and perfectly tap a loneliness and a desire to be special that spoke to a generation of kids who were ready for her message. What she did was singular, and it was a commercial force that will not be matched in this genre. Since the explosion of popularity for "Potter," there have been many pretenders to the throne, many book series cranked out trying to capture the same market, and some of them have done well enough to make it to the screen.
I'm not surprised 20th Century Fox purchased the "Percy Jackson" books. The idea of doing a "Harry Potter" riff with Greek myths is simple and potentially rich enough in source material to run for many, many books, and Rick Riordan, who created the books, came by it honestly. He started writing the first book well before there was a Harry Potter, well before Rowling published anything, even if he wasn't able to find a home for the idea until her success kicked the door open. He was a teacher of Greek mythology whose own son was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, characteristics that he incorporated into Percy Jackson, his hero. I haven't read the five books, but I have a general sense of what they are, and they certainly have an active fanbase that has taken to the world that Riordan brought to life. Are they "Harry Potter" big? No. But nothing is. The next thing that becomes a phenomenon like that will come out of left field, and even if it also plays with familiar tropes (which I can almost guarantee it will), it will do so in a way we haven't seen in a while, and it will spawn its own army of imitators.
My basic point is this: for many of us of a certain age, "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" will seem like familiar material right off the bat, because we are literally innundated with a dozen new movies a year about "the Chosen One." For me, the thing that makes or breaks a movie like this is how consistent or clever the world is that the film creates, how well the chemistry of the cast works, and how much energy there is in the telling. And on that level, I would rank "Percy Jackson" as a charming effort overall that makes very good use of its Greek mythological underpinnings, a movie that absolutely called to mind the energy that was present in the early work of Chris Columbus as a screenwriter, the glory days of Amblin' in the '80s. I say that as someone who really digs "Gremlins," who isn't a fan of "Goonies," and who has mixed feelings about "Young Sherlock Holmes." Despite me not linking "The Goonies," I am well aware of the impact it had on many of my peers, and the continuing hold it seems to exert on them. I can recognize that in his early efforts, Columbus wrote a sort of modern pulp that cut through the cynicism that was a big part of the pop culture of that era, and because he was so earnest, he managed to create work that resonated. There was an energy to his writing that hasn't always shown up in later films of his like "Mrs. Doubtfire" or "Nine Months" or "Stepmom." Those films weren't aimed at that same audience, weren't trying to tell the same types of stories, and I think one of the reasons Columbus has never maintained a consistent fanbase is because he has never been the same filmmaker consistently.
When he made the first two "Harry Potter" films, he was basically a man trying to play the piano in a straightjacket underwater. He wasn't directing a film... he was shepherding an asset. Warner Bros. had a plan, and if he didn't pull off those first two movies, that plan wasn't going to work. There are any number of intended franchises that lay bleeding out on the sharp rocks of audience indifference, so Columbus certainly could have failed. It was possible for those movies to bomb. Nothing was guaranteed. The fact that the films he made worked to the degree they did is sort of miraculous.
This time out, Columbus feels like he's having fun, like he's enjoying this go-round of world-building, and he seems much more comfortable with the technical demands of giant monsters, flying kids, and magic. He is helped mightily by the chemistry between his three young leads, and it was a smart move, making them older teenagers rather than pre-pubescents. There's a genuine sense of peril that underlines the quest that Percy (Logan Lerman) and his two companions, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), have to embark on if they hope to rescue Percy's mother from Hades (Steve Coogan) and stop a war between Zeus (Sean Bean) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). The movie plays rough enough at times, complete with a "Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas" side trip to a casino run by the Lotus Eaters, that there are consequences, but the film also keeps the truly grow-up stuff just under the surface. The adults may know what Rosario Dawson's gonna do to that Satyr, but the kids won't.
The guest stars in the film, the recognizable faces, work to varying degrees. Sean Bean and Kevin McKidd have very little screen time, but at this point, they both carry enough baggage as screen figures that it works... they suggest a danger and a power that is appropriate. Uma Thurman seems to really relish her time onscreen, but she's all monster and no seduction, which I think is a combination that is vital for Medusa. Steve Coogan damn near runs away with the film during his one big scene, and Rosario Dawson is perfectly tuned in to his lunatic energy, making the trip to Hades one of the film's best moments. Joe Pantoliano shows up simply to be disgusting, and you should make sure you hang around till the end of the credits for Joe's best moment in the film.
As with most of the films in this genre, I do think the quest is very easy, and I'm really not sold on the way Camp Halfblood (where all children of gods and mortals go to learn how to harness their powers) is presented. There are issues of parental responsibility that are played too quickly, thrown away in most of the important sequences, and only Catherine Keener, as Percy's mom, comes close to playing a fully-realized parental figure. Considering how much of the film focuses on the notion of an entire generation of abandoned kids, the way the emotion never quite kicks in and connects has to counted as a failure of sorts. But I think there's a lot to like about the film, and what surprised me is how the trailers for this film had a distinctly "Night At The Museum" vibe, while the finished film is nothing like those witless horror shows. This is not a smarmy pop culture joke machine, and it's not a plastic misfire a la "Eragon." Built with set pieces that demonstrate a real affection for Greek myth iconography (both the Hydra and Medusa really work), centered on a strong performance by Logan Lerman (a star in the making, based on this and "3:10 To Yuma"), "Percy Jackson & The Olympians" aims young and hits the target fairly consistently.
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