Friday, February 12, 2010

Percy Jackson, Greek for Harry Potter

He is a confused young man with powers he does not understand, sent to a mysterious camp for similarly gifted students. Why does that sound so familiar? Indeed, Percy Jackson’s world not only bears pronounced likenesses to the Harry Potter series, it also shares the same director for its cinematic launch. However, the Greek mythological trappings of the Rick Riordan books give a distinctly different flavor to Chris Columbus’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (trailer here), the first film in what is obviously projected to be a kid friendly movie franchise, which opens today across the country.

Percy Jackson is not a happy young man. He has ADHD, dyslexia, and a real louse of a step-dad. However, he seems to have an innate ability to read ancient Greek and can hold his breath underwater for inhuman lengths of time. The truth is he is a demigod, the son of a mortal mother and Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Jackson does not know this yet, so he is a bit surprised when mythological monsters start attacking him.

As one of the few demigods not readily accounted for, Jackson naturally falls under suspicion when Zeus’s lightning bolt is stolen. That also makes Jackson a prime target for those who would challenge the lord of Olympus. Fortunately, it turns out Jackson has a protector, Grover, a satyr (half-goat, half-man) masquerading as an ostensibly disabled classmate. Under attack by a minotaur, Grover successfully leads Jackson to the Hogwartseque Camp Half Blood, but not before Ms. Jackson is magically whisked down to Hades. Of course this sets up a quest for the young hero: get Mom out of h-e-double hockey sticks and hopefully avert a war between the gods that could tear our world asunder.

It is surprising Columbus would take on Percy Jackson after opting out of the director’s chair for future Potter films, given the undeniable parallels between the two series. Still, he clearly has an affinity for such material, staging magical mêlées that are fairly intense, but never inappropriately graphic. In terms of tone and subject matter, this first Jackson film is probably best suited for the older Potter readers who have advanced to the somewhat darker later novels.

Logan Lerman, who displayed a remarkably winning screen presence in My One and Only, again brings an easy likability to Lightning as its young protagonist. More assertive than Harry Potter, yet more sympathetic than the annoying kid from Jumper, he makes Jackson a strong rooting interest, despite being such an awkward tweener. Of the well known supporting cast, Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson probably fare the best, shamelessly chewing up the underworld scenery as Hades and his resentful wife Persephone.

Lightning is about what you would expect (nothing more or less). It is a competently crafted special effects film targeted at young but not too young fantasy fans. Parents accompanying their children will likely find it somewhat diverting, but not enchanting. Still, they should appreciate the themes of love and sacrifice, as well as the over-riding message cautioning viewers not to judge a book by its cover, because that unkempt man in a wheel chair might just be a centaur in disguise.