Knowing that Chris Columbus directed the first two Harry Potter films, you may find his new movie — “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” to give it its full, galumphing title — to be jarringly familiar. It concerns three kids — one stalwart boy, one feisty girl, one comical sidekick — who have special powers and are sent to a special place (Camp Half-Blood!) for training under the mentorship of a wise older protector; there’s a secretly fiendish teacher and also a quest on which our heroes are guided by a magical map. Too bad there’s no Voldemort figure, although we do get Steve Coogan in fiery demon drag — which unfortunately is nowhere near the same thing.
Like the book on which it’s based — the first in Rick Riordan’s best-selling series of young-adult novels — the movie is heavily infested with the gods of ancient Greek mythology, which may prove confusing to those who’ve forgotten their Olympian arcana. The story begins with two of the top gods, Zeus (Sean Bean) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), meeting on the top deck of the Empire State Building. Zeus is angry that someone has stolen his trademark lightning bolt, and he suspects it was Poseidon’s half-human son, Perseus, who lives down below in New York with his all-human mother, Sally (Catherine Keener). Poseidon’s been out of touch, but says he’ll see what he can do.
Perseus, we quickly learn, is a regular teen known to his friends as Percy (Logan Lerman). Mom has never filled him in on the absent-dad situation, but when beastly things suddenly start happening, she knows it’s time to take him to the aforementioned Camp Half-Blood. This woodsy place is run by one of Percy’s high school lit teachers (Pierce Brosnan), who turns out in this world to be a centaur named Chiron — or as he puts it, “a real horse’s ass.” (The sight of Brosnan strolling around followed by the larger part of a horse is the movie’s single silliest image.)
Percy also encounters a school buddy named Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) at the camp, and sees that he’s actually a goat-legged satyr. And he meets a girl named Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who’s the daughter of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. After Hades (Coogan), the ruler of the Underworld, looms up out of a campfire demanding Zeus’ lightning bolt for his own foul purposes, Percy, Annabeth and Grover set out in search of the thing, guided by that magical map.
They’re led on a sort of treasure hunt, first to New Jersey, where they have a nasty encounter with the snaky Medusa (Uma Thurman in a turban and shades, giving the film’s funniest performance); then to Nashville and Las Vegas (where they fall in with some high-rolling lotus-eaters); and finally to Hell itself, which turns out to be located in Hollywood (nudge, nudge). There we meet Hades again, now togged out in the ’70s rock-star gear in which he spends his non-fiery downtime. Coogan, with his comic whininess, is gratingly miscast in this role, but Rosario Dawson strives to compensate as the Evil One’s wisecracking queen, Persephone. There’s also a beautiful sequence here in which Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, takes the kids into his boat and steers them out through the infernal skies spread above a vast land of flames. This interlude has the sort of magical resonance that’s common in the Potter films but in very short supply in this one, which generally feels like an explosion in a CGI factory.
Despite its otherworldly trappings, the movie is inescapably earthbound — not least in its Hollywood-centric smarm. (There’s a pointless putdown of country music, and at one point an observation that many of the demigods walking the Earth are famous — and one has even made it into the White House!) The film’s young leads are fine (although Lerman and Daddario don’t have a lot of chemistry), but the script gives them none of the Potterish character details — Hermione’s snippy officiousness, Harry’s burdened bravery — that make the Hogwarts kids so engaging. Columbus has boosted the ages of the preteens in the book by five years, but this still feels like a kiddie movie (note its PG rating). There’s nothing wrong with that. But the picture may also strike some viewers as sadly worthy of its dumping into the cinematic boneyard of wintry mid-February.
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