With its long, colon-bedecked title, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (20th Century Fox) announces that it intends to be the first installment of a new and extremely profitable movie franchise. It aspires to fill the gap left by the looming end of the Harry Potter series, and the abject failure of The Golden Compass movie. But to understand why the Percy Jackson movie must not—and will not—succeed, please indulge a brief (but I suspect typical) family story.
My daughter was a Harry Potter junkie. She tore through the books as fast as I could read them to her. When we finished the series a couple of years ago, she suffered withdrawal symptoms. The movies, the imaginary Potter games—they weren’t enough to satisfy her cravings. Like so many other children, she desperately sought other, similar books to sate her Potter jones. These methadone books generally featured ordinary children who stumbled into magical powers and entered a secret, usually funny, alternative magical world. The Septimus Heap and Inkheart books briefly diverted her, Artemis Fowl didn’t. Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 had a good run. But nothing held her like Rick Riordan’s five Percy Jackson books, which I read to her night after night after night for months.
The Percy Jackson books tell the story of an everyday American boy with a troubled family life, who discovers he’s the secret son of the Greek god Poseidon, who happens to be alive and well and headquartered on Mount Olympus, which occupies the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. Demigods and monsters live throughout the world, masked from ordinary humans and possessing extraordinary powers. Over a series of five adventures, Percy meets most of the memorable characters from Greek mythology and eventually saves the world from a devastating war between the gods and the titans.
The series delighted my daughter but irritated me with its overwhelming, blatant borrowing from Harry Potter. Percy is American—that’s a difference. And his magic comes from Greek gods, not wizards. But almost every other significant element in the books—particularly the first book, The Lightning Thief—is derivative. An average boy living with a vicious, bullying relative suddenly learns of his special powers and finds out that he’s actually a celebrity in the magical world. (Hmm, where have I heard that?) Percy’s quickly transported to a mysterious place where other extraordinary kids learn to harness their powers, but it’s not Hogwarts, it’s “Camp Half-Blood.” Hogwarts has “houses”; Camp Half-Blood has “cabins.” Hogwarts has Quidditch; Camp Half-Blood has epic games of capture-the-flag. Hogwarts is supervised by a gentle, bearded, and mighty wizard; Camp Half-Blood by a gentle, bearded, and mighty centaur. Our hero—whose name even has the same rhythm as Potter (Har-ry Pot-ter; Per-cy Jack-son)—soon attracts two sidekicks. One, Annabeth Chase, is a book-smart girl who starts out as a rival but becomes a friend. The other, Grover Underwood, is goofy, physically awkward, and loyal. These three set out to retrieve an all-powerful magical object that’s been lost (Potter: sorcerer’s stone; Jackson: lightning bolt of Zeus), confront the forces of darkness, and—through courage and guile—emerge victorious.
In short, it’s a rip-off.
Still, since my daughter loved the books, I felt it was my parental duty for us to spend a snow day at a screening of The Lightning Thief. Rarely has there been a more perfect marriage between source material and filmmaker than Percy Jackson and Chris Columbus. Derivative book, meet cornball director! Columbus, the schlock genius behind the Home Alone movies, the first two Harry Potter films (the bad ones), Stepmom, Bicentennial Man, and other horrors, has brought his shopworn bag of tricks to Percy Jackson. The plot is a mess, though, to be fair to Columbus, not more of a mess than the book. Briefly, Percy is falsely suspected of stealing the lightning bolt, sets out with Annabeth and Grover on a road trip to the Underworld, battles Medusa and the Hydra, tries to free his mother from Hades’ clutches, and finally finds the bolt and returns it to Olympus. Columbus has accelerated Percy from 12 years old, as he is in the book, to High School Musical age, and cast alarmingly sexual actors as his three leads. As Percy, Logan Lermann comes off as more lost Jonas Brother than lost son of Poseidon; Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) is more pneumatic and pillow-lipped than you’d expect a daughter of chaste Athena to be. And poor Brandon T. Jackson is compelled to play Grover as a joking, hip-hop sex machine.
Columbus directs with his usual frying pan to the head. Music is forever swelling majestically. Characters are always opening wide their eyes and mouths to gaze in wonder. (Look, it’s Hermes’ flying shoes! Look, ha ha, they’re basketball high-tops!) Columbus is world champion of the obvious double-take: That’s not a cow, that’s … the Minotaur! That’s not an angry security guard, that’s … the Hydra! That’s not … oh forget it.
There are small pleasures. Uma Thurman plays Medusa as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. Steve Coogan steals his two minutes as Hades, an angry, aging heavy-metal rock star. (On the other hand, Columbus should be sanctioned by the director’s guild for his abuse of Catherine Keener, who’s given such terrible dialogue as Percy’s mom that even she can’t salvage it.)
The Lightning Thief is loud, scary, oversexed, and really unfun. All that would have been fine if my daughter liked it, but instead it left her and her friend stunned. It took them half an hour and a pepperoni pizza to recover. Chris Columbus nearly suffocated the Harry Potter franchise with his leaden films of the first two books. It took Alfonso Cuarón and other directors to revive the franchise.
But Percy Jackson will not be saved. These mediocre books don’t deserve—and surely won’t get—another chance in movie theaters.
Slate V: The critics on Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thiefand other new releases