Greek mythology gets a modern update in “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” yet another kidlit adaptation hoping to steal some of Harry Potter’s thunder. Loosely based on book one of Rick Riordan’s five-volume series, “Thief” introduces Poseidon’s half-human love child, who battles a Minotaur, Medusa and a five-headed Hydra to avert a global gods-must-be-crazy crisis. With Chris Columbus at the helm, “Lightning” strikes many of the same notes as his earlier “Potter” efforts (outsider hero, episodic plotting, high-energy finale), though the deja-vu approach should lure a decent fraction of that franchise’s aud for a fraction of its budget.
Zeus’ master bolt has gone missing, but the primary suspect, Percy (Logan Lerman), doesn’t have much of a motive when the film opens. Not until a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Percy is attacked by a winged Fury, does the dyslexic teen learn of his unlikely lineage: Turns out his mother (Catherine Keener) hooked up with Poseidon, who was forced to abandon his spawn by an unfair Olympian decree. Seventeen years later (boosted from the book’s 12), someone is trying to turn the gods against each other by framing young Percy with the theft of Zeus’ prized possession.
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Columbus, who so deftly dealt with divorce in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” attempts to stir up a fresh set of adolescent emotions with Percy’s broken-family backstory (Joe Pantoliano plays Mom’s boorish boyfriend). However, though Lerman was quite promising in “3:10 to Yuma” and “Hoot,” here he falls back on the soapy acting style of his big break, WB skein “Jack and Bobby.” Lerman can square his jaw and furrow his brow with the best of them, but that doesn’t cut it when trying to convey something as mythic as grappling with one’s true identity.
Where Harry Potter had Hogwarts, Percy Jackson gets his demigod training from Camp Half-Blood, overseen by resident centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan). Like Percy’s best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), who uses crutches to disguise his identity as a garbage-eating satyr, Chiron moves around by wheelchair outside camp — an interesting concept that, when combined with Percy’s dyslexia and ADHD, suggests that such challenges may actually mask supernatural abilities.
In the book, Riordan went to great lengths to imagine contempo roles for key figures of Greek mythology, though screenwriter Craig Titley largely avoids the notion that clues to the gods’ ongoing presence exist right under our noses. Instead, he streamlines the plot, pairing Percy with half-goat Grover and Athena’s daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario, who’s more kick-ass Xena than bookworm Hermione) on a cross-country odyssey that brings him face-to-face with Medusa (a vampy Uma Thurman) and several other labors — watered down considerably since Hercules’ day.
Percy may be older than he was in the book, but the material still skews young (despite several risque asides). Columbus generates genuine energy during action scenes, from the Minotaur showdown to a life-or-death game of capture-the-flag at camp, but his overall vision for the property falls far short of iconic, and the digital effects have the cheesy look of so many low-budget SyFy TV movies. Where limitations in CG technology forced the helmer to go the “Jaws” route in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (suggesting rather than showing much of the magic), here, he tries to give auds an eyeful.
It’s not until well past the halfway mark that the movie really clicks in, firing up with a visit to Las Vegas’ imaginary Lotus Hotel (how “Pinocchio’s” Island of Lost Boys might have looked had Disney designed it today), followed by a CG-intensive but largely suspense-free encounter with Hades (a Mick Jagger-styled Steve Coogan) in the underworld. Titley scraps the book’s big climax and focuses on a spectacular new showdown atop the Empire State Building (gateway to Mount Olympus in the book’s revised mythology).
Action movies of this scale often start off strong and wind down to forgettable finales, but “Percy Jackson” is the opposite, overcoming a clunky setup to deliver nearly all its thrills in the last half-hour. With competition from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” just weeks away at the box office, the pic will have to score fast to generate any hopes of a bigscreen sequel, though as potential franchise starters go, the film stands on its own, and should sustain repeat viewing on homevid.
Hit-and-miss vfx aside, tech credits are pro. Sound design is especially strong, though the material deserves a more memorable score than the one “The Hangover’s” Christophe Beck conjures.