If there’s any doubt after the first hour of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief that this movie is not for you, the Las Vegas casino montage set to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” should clear things up fairly quickly. By “you” I of course mean anyone actually reading this review. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (henceforth to be known as PJ & the Goat) is the new Chris Columbus film based on a bestselling series of childrens books by Rick Riordan that posits a world where the gods of old still exist and their illegitimate spawn roam the earth. The film opens with a towering Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) walking out of the ocean before shrinking to human-size and ascending to the top of the Empire State Building where he meets up with Zeus (Sean Bean). It seems Zeus has lost his lightning bolt, and before Poseidon can complete a quip about erectile dysfunction Zeus stops him cold with an accusation that Poseidon’s son is the thief.
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is your average high-schooler… his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is a sassy cripple, his mom (Catherine Keener) is married to Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano), and his ability to hold his breath underwater for over seven minutes has made him very popular with the ladies. His normal life comes to a halt during a school trip to a local museum when a substitute teacher transforms into a winged creature and demands he give her the lightning bolt. He’s saved by Grover and Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) who reveal to Percy that his life is in danger and that he’s the son of a Greek god. They also reveal their true forms… as a satyr and a centaur respectively (and thankfully genital-free). Soon Percy is heading off to Camp Mythical Mulatto where children born of god and human parentage learn to wear tunics, play with swords, and stare longingly into each others eyes. His mother is killed by a minotaur along the way, but luckily Percy has Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, to keep him company and distract him from showing the slightest emotion over the loss. He briefly settles in to his waterfront bachelor pad (built for him by his absentee father) before learning that his mother is actually alive and trapped in hell, so he sets off on a predictable and bland adventure with Grover and Annabeth to rescue his mom and find the true lightning thief.
That roar you’re hearing in the background is the sound of half the audience yawning and the other half giggling.
And that’s a damn shame too. The initial premise about the half-breed children of the gods discovering new powers within themselves and taking on modern-day adventures more familiar to their ancient and mythical ancestors is a potentially strong and interesting one. But Columbus and writer Craig Titley seem to have no idea who their movie is for and by default end up with a film that may only be enjoyable to a pre-teen market looking for brainless and soulless eye-candy, but even that will be an uphill battle.
The trouble (for both characters and audience) starts almost immediately as they set out on their videogame-inspired quest of finding three hidden pearls they’ll need to escape from hell. A magical map leads them to three locations across the US where the pearls have been hidden, and at each stage they have to face off against an end-boss of sorts including Medusa (Uma Thurman), a multi-headed Hydra, and some Lotus-Eaters in Las Vegas. The first two are passable action sequences even though they involve some major stupidity, but the casino section is just ridiculous. We’ll ignore the fact that the three underage teens are allowed in without issue, but once they fall under the spell of the Lotus-Pushers working in conjunction with Miss Gaga and her “Poker Face” song we’re subjected to a montage of gambling, eating, Grover getting his hooves painted (!), and a choreographed dance number.
The satyr gets his hooves manicured and painted and dances like he’s in a music video.
As sad and stupid as the casino segment is though it at least manages to be one of the very few scenes with any degree of energy or life to it. The rest of the film just seems to tick by one dull and predictable frame after the last. It’s ABC film-making at its worst… go here, get this, go there, get that… and it inexplicably manages to leave a film filled with gods and mythological creatures feeling uninspired, uninteresting, and boring. The movie also ends up being an utterly heartless affair. Mom’s death and rescue attempt are unemotional affairs, just as Percy’s reunion with his father is. If neither the actors nor the characters care what’s going on… why should we?
It’s hard to complain about a cast that includes McKidd, Bean, Keener, Brosnan, Dawson, Coogan, and Thurman… but I owe it to you to at least try. Both McKidd and Bean are fantastic actors but they have absolutely nothing to do here. Poseidon and Zeus stand around and argue a little, but they don’t do a single thing. I realize the movie is about the kids, but come on people, these are powerful gods! Keener looks dazed throughout and sadly seems resigned to her Hollywood experience consisting of little more than playing mom to ungrateful little shits (Where the Wild Things Are). Brosnan’s centaur looks good effects-wise, but he seems to think he’s playing some kind of man/peacock hybrid as he puffs out his chest and gut in every scene and you can’t help but laugh as he imparts his words of wisdom. Thurman’s turn as Medusa is a more successful performance, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s still Thurman so thankfully her scene is brief. Coogan and Dawson are the only two “stars” that truly manage to make their roles work. He imbues Hades with a delightfully sinister glee, and she is simply too sexy for this movie.
Enough about the adults you say, how are the youngsters? Lerman (Spider Man IV) is pretty good with the material he’s given and he shows a bit of charm and personality that may serve him well going forward, but he’s never really tasked with showing much in the way of emotion. Dad’s a Greek god? Gee, that’s pretty crazy… Mom’s dead? Oh well, let’s go flirt with that chick over there… Daddario is the “chick” but aside from a pair of beautiful eyes she’s pretty much forgettable. Jackson manages to squeeze in a few entertaining lines but you have to sit through (seemingly) several hundred more stupid ones. They may have been scripted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Columbus just let him run rampant with untethered improvisation.
It’s impossible not to compare PJ & the Goat with the Harry Potter films for several reasons… both are based on successful books, feature a trio of young leads, have kids who discover they’re different from everyone else, include powerful elders both good and bad who allow the youngsters to get caught up between them, and of course Columbus directed the first two Potters. But JK Rowling’s characters managed to reach the screen with their character intact. They have personalities, strengths, and flaws. Percy, Annabeth, and Grover have none of those things.
The fall of Columbus has been a sad arc to watch as he is still the man behind at least three great films not counting his forays into Rowling’s world. But those Potter films are eight years old now and in the time since he’s given us a flat Rent and the abysmal I Love You Beth Cooper. The man who wrote Gremlins and The Goonies and directed Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire may need to take a page from his mentor John Hughes and just walk away. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting Columbus should die… just fade gracefully into semi-retirement like Hughes did.)
So where does it leave PJ & the Goat on the recommendation scale? It’s not a good movie by any stretch, but if you have kids under the age of ten (and preferably not too bright) they’ll probably enjoy the movie. Lots of stuff moves around on-screen and the wise-cracking black sidekick talks funny.
The Upside: Some good effects, Rosario Dawson and Steve Coogan, enough action and visual effects to keep young kids enthralled
The Downside: Terrible dialogue, dull characters, overly simplified story lacking nuance and character, unintentionally laughable at times, uninspired action
On the Side: Three films open wide this weekend and none of them are worth your money. Isn’t that depressing?