Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief -- Film Review

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Besides possessing the young year's lengthiest and most ungainly title, "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is also notable for being Hollywood's latest attempt to turn a series of popular kid-friendly fantasy novels into the next "Harry Potter"-like film franchise. Since virtually all the previous efforts have ended in failure -- anyone remember "The Spiderwick Chronicles" or "The Seeker: The Dark is Rising"? -- the forces behind "Percy Jackson" are pulling out all the stops to make the movie click.

For starters, they've tapped talented up-and-comer Logan Lerman to play the title role and surrounded him with such established stars as Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean and Uma Thurman. The movie's scale is also grand, taking its demigod teen hero from the mean streets of New York to the fiery pits of Hades before ending up in the halls of Olympus, encountering a number of gods and goddesses (and a minotaur or two) along the way. Meanwhile, the man overseeing the action behind the camera is none other than Chris Columbus, who got the "Harry Potter" movies off the ground nine years ago.

So has "Percy Jackson" successfully cracked the "Potter" code? In terms of overall quality, not even close. Still, the film's carefully calibrated mixture of CGI-enhanced spectacle, diverting (and blood-free) action sequences and adolescent angst could make it a modest hit with the eight to 12-year-old set. Where Harry's exploits attract audiences of all ages, though, Percy's appeal seems strictly limited to the family moviegoing crowd; anyone outside of that demo is better off waiting for part one of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," due in theatres in November.

Adhering to the same "hero's journey" narrative that has driven almost every cinematic fantasy-adventure since "Star Wars," the inaugural installment of this would-be franchise introduces viewers to Percy Jackson (Lerman), a surly teenager who discovers that he is actually the offspring of the Greek god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). This news couldn't come at a more difficult time; a war is brewing amongst the gods over Zeus' (Bean) stolen lightning bolt and Percy is widely assumed to be the thief.

Spirited away to a demigod boot camp with the inelegant name Camp Half Blood, the novice hero is trained in the art of war and allies himself with a wisecracking Satyr (Brandon T. Jackson) and the goddess Athena's butt-kicking daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario). Together, the trio head back out into the real world to save Percy's human mother (Catherine Keener) from the clutches of Hades (Steve Coogan) and find a way to avert the coming clash of the titans.

"The Lightning Thief" is at its best when Columbus and screenwriter Craig Titley find ways to put a fun contemporary spin on some of the familiar names and storylines from Greek mythology. In his battle with snake-haired Medusa (Thurman), for example, Percy relies on the reflective surface on the back of his iPod in place of a mirror. The island of the Lotus Eaters, meanwhile, has been transformed into a lavish Las Vegas nightclub where time literally stands still. But the film's haphazard plotting and bland characterizations often undermine these clever conceits. It's particularly unfortunate that the lone black character essentially functions as the white hero's servant.

What's really lacking in "The Lightning Thief" is a genuine sense of wonder, the same thing that brings viewers back to Hogwarts over and over again. Percy's world seems like a decent place to visit, but it's just not magical enough to make you want to live there.

Opens February 12, 2010 (20th Century Fox)
Production Companies: Fox 2000, Dune Entertainment, 1492 Pictures, Sunswept Entertainment
Rated PG, 119 minutes