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Movie Review: “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”

21 Feb

As a fan of both the Harry Potter films and books, I was both pleased and saddened to learn that the “Deathly Hallows” movie is currently in production. I was glad that my favorite volume in the series is under development…but also, a little sad that it’s the last installment in the saga. Fortunately, it appears that a worthy successor is beginning to emerge…

Enter Percy Jackson – a normal kid, who just happens to be the son of the Greek god Poseidon.

“Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” the best-selling fantasy series authored by Rick Riordan, has been heralded as “the next Harry Potter.” While it isn’t quite up to the level of J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus, the series is a fast-paced, witty retelling of Greek myths in the context of modern society. Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, and the rest have all vacated Mount Olympus and taken up residence in the Empire State Building, where they attempt to influence the course of human history and stave off the attacks of predatory monsters. (I’ll address the very obvious worldview implications later on)

The titular character, Perseus Jackson (played effectively by Logan Lerman), is the half-divine (demigod) son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. When his lineage becomes clear, he and his mother are attacked by a vicious harpy and a savage minotaur. This latter skirmish results in the apparent death of Percy’s mother.

After a prolonged battle with the minotaur, Percy and his loyal bodyguard Grover (a satyr) find themselves in Camp Half-Blood, a hidden forest installation that somewhat resembles a Boy Scout ranch. Under the kindly guidance of the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan), young demigods from all around the world are taught how to use their innate powers to battle the monsters that wish humanity harm.

But Percy doesn’t have much time to learn. Zeus’ master weapon – his lightning bolt – has been stolen, and Percy (as the son of Zeus’ brother and rival, Poseidon) is the prime suspect. Now, Percy must find a way to both rescue his mother and recover the stolen bolt before war breaks out between the gods.

Accompanied by Grover the satyr and a feisty daughter of Athena named Annabeth, Percy begins a quest that takes him across the United States in search of some answers. They battle Medusa (Uma Thurman) in a garden-statue emporium (using a shiny iPod touch in place of a reflective shield), and square off with the fire-breathing Hydra of Lerna in Nashville. A casino in Las Vegas stands in for the Island of the Lotus-Eaters, and the fabled Hollywood sign serves as a hidden gateway to Hades. (Irony much?) Wry pop culture references abound, giving the film a don’t-take-this-too-seriously attitude that appeals to viewers young and old.

It’s a smart, well-paced movie that deserves far better reviews than it’s received. Fans of Harry Potter or of Greek mythology in general will not be disappointed. There are a few changes to Rick Riordan’s source material, but they generally serve to add clarity.

At first glance, it sounds like there are a lot of worldview considerations – especially considering the whole issue of the “gods.” However, “Percy Jackson” neatly sidesteps any potential religious debates by making the Greek deities merely stand-ins for classic superheroes. They’re neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and really don’t come across as representatives of an anti-Christian worldview. Zeus and Poseidon really don’t wield any more power than Electro or Aquaman, and they struggle with very human weaknesses.

(It is worth noting, however, that the realm of Hades is a terrifying, Dante-esque vision of the biblical hell, not the quiet, shadowy otherworld portrayed in the original myths.)

Gods and superheroes aside, however, there are undeniably supernatural aspects to this film. Those who disagree with Harry Potter on principle probably shouldn’t see this movie. I personally didn’t find it offensive, but I can understand that some might.

My biggest criticism of “Percy Jackson” is not directed at its makers, but rather at the MPAA members who gave it a PG rating. This is quite possibly the “edgiest” PG movie I have ever seen. The violence and scary images are fast and furious, there’s a fair amount of language, and there are a few innuendoes tossed in as well. Don’t go into this movie thinking you’ll see something along the lines of “The Incredibles” or even the earlier Harry Potter movies – “Percy Jackson” is not suitable for children under the age of ten.

That said, however, it’s still a well-made, exciting movie. It definitely has its flaws, but most older viewers will not find them especially problematic. I would recommend “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” to teen and adult viewers who enjoy the Harry Potter series or are fans of Greek mythology.

It’s not perfect. But it’s still pretty good.

VERDICT: 8/10
An occasionally intense, but creative and well-executed, cinematic fantasy.

Normalized Score: 5.8

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Posted by on February 21, 2010 in Fantasy

 

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