PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF
(PG, Twentieth Century Fox, 118 mins., release date: February 12, 2010; SRP: $19.99)
PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS
(PG, Twentieth Century Fox, 106 mins., release date: August 7, 2013; SRP: $39.99)
Take your mind back to 2010, the year film adaptations of young adult novel franchises were in full swing. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter already rang the box-office bell five previous times and the grand finale was given the Kill Bill treatment with The Deathly Hollows, Part One arriving in late autumn. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight was on its third entry, Eclipse, and the first in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series was in embryonic pre-production after Lions Gate secured the movie rights.
Lost in the shuffle was Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, based on Rick Riordan's own teen-oriented bestseller, relegated to the typically faithless dumping grounds of early 2010 by Twentieth Century Fox. This scheduling was a sign of avoiding competition with the teen lit titans, all boy wizards and bohunk monsters, as well as the final product being inescapably seen as a transparent clone of the inaugural Harry Potter films, most blatantly deduced from the employment of journeyman Chris Columbus as the director, someone who has embraced his hired gun status to the point where his production company is even named 1492 Productions. It's not like anyone was expecting a brave new world as far as Percy Jackson was concerned.
Bespectacled British yobs with wands were traded in for sullen Manhattan boys with swords, whilst Hogwarts and Quidditch morphed into Camp Half-Blood and junior cadet games of Capture the Flag. Instead of Ron Weasley, Riordan's best friend figure was a black teenage satyr/sensei/servant named Grover, which was more of a hard personality change than the rather traditional appearance of a feisty female warrior, Annabeth, a clear understudy for Hermione. The characters may have adopted physical deformities familiar to its Greek mythological trappings, as Dumbledore in this universe was Chiron, a centaur split between human and horse at the torso, but critics and audiences knew exactly where this film's true inspiration lied.
17-year-old Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is introduced as oblivious to this strange co-existence between gods and men, and only when Zeus (Sean Bean) accuses brother Poseidon's (Kevin McKidd) demigod son of burgling his lightning rod staff (why, there's the magic wand!) does Percy gradually realize his secret identity. For Percy is indeed Poseidon's progeny from a love affair with a mortal woman named Sally (Catherine Keener), and on a field trip to the museum overseen by wheelchair-bound Professor Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), a gargoyle posing as a substitute teacher attacks Percy in private, inquiring about the missing bolt. Brunner and "junior protector" Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) intervene, whisking Percy and Sally away to the Half-Blood campgrounds. Alas, Sally is forbidden to enter being a pureblood and all and is kidnapped by a Minotaur minion of Hades (Steve Coogan).
Afflicted with dyslexia and ADHD which are revealed to be talents rather than stigmas, Percy is confronted with the rumor of his treachery and vows to rescue his mom and set things straight with the holy trinity of Olympians. However, time is of the essence as Zeus has threatened war on the eve of the summer solstice, which means catastrophic natural disasters shall engulf Earth in flames. Percy defies Chiron's orders and ventures out to locate the Underworld where his mom is imprisoned, with Grover the goat-boy and Athena's steely daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) tagging along. Guided by a map handed down by the Luke (Jake Abel), the cocky absentee son of Hermes, Percy and friends travel cross country from Jersey to Nashville to Las Vegas collecting teleportation pearls to save them and all of mankind from premature damnation.
Chris Columbus, former screenwriter for Steven Spielberg (Gremlins, The Goonies) and protégé of John Hughes (Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone), is quite a populist filmmaker at heart. I try not to level accusations of pandering at him, because I've seen worse hired gun filmmakers in my time and he at least knows how to make a film which is genuinely charming for all audiences. I grew up watching Home Alone almost on a Mobius-style loop and Mrs. Doubtfire remains a fun little diversion to this day. I even tout 1991's Only the Lonely as proof that Columbus was a generous actor's director on par with Hughes, who also helped prove John Candy was a multi-faceted, undervalued presence with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But in the new millennium, I can't help but feel Columbus has calcified into a joyless groove, especially given that his previous film prior to The Lightning Thief was I Love You, Beth Cooper, a forced, unfunny attempt at recapturing the glories of both his and the late Hughes' pasts.
Having begun the 2000s with Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone as well as The Chamber of Secrets, the 2010 arrival of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief feels like an Oracle's sad prophecy come to life, as Columbus' workmanlike reputation comes full circle to drag him down into uncut mediocrity. Columbus' slavish, Johnny La Rue-style devotion to crane shots, the minimal-stakes melodrama and his astounding lack of visual humor can be felt with all the finesse of a blow from Thor's hammer. Whatever touches he once demonstrated with ensemble casts has become an every-actor-for-himself Survivor Series where a lot of talented people get taken down for the count. Moments of striking spectacle which incorporate some effectively seamless CGI (I especially enjoyed a ferry ride down the boulevard of broken dreams) are taken to loud, repetitive dead zones which are as immersing as trying to dunk a cookie in a lab dish full of milk.
And then there's the matter of Craig Titley's screenplay, who apparently has invoked a powerful deity I never read about in all of my Homeric high school days: Diangellus, the God of Exposition. Whenever a mortal man has no faith in the sanctity of mise-en-scène, he seemingly prays to mighty Diangellus for a thudding line of over-explanation, thereby robbing any incident of magic, wit or intelligence. It makes the film seem more like a professor's waffling lecture than a majestic feat of storytelling, as everything has to be elaborated on with stern, mood-killing bluntness. Percy's newfound destiny is given to reams of tiresome specifics without any true feel for discovery or introspection, whereas revelations like the trio realizing the rat-infested garden shop is really Medusa's lair require a lot of thudding, literal exclamations that clutter and grate.
The name of that death trap is "Auntie Em's Garden Emporium," by the way, a backfiring allusion which reinforces just how much this makes The Wizard of Oz feel even more like The Odyssey by comparison. The stifling blandness of the central heroic threesome is enough to make you want to click your heels thrice and long for home. Logan Lerman may have the face of Disney-period Kurt Russell and the coiffure of Zac Efron, but Percy Jackson comes across more like a Luke Skywalker figurine with such a colorless, angst-ridden arc to burden. Ditto Alexandra Daddario, who has the piercing blue eyes of a junior Meg Foster but little worthy motivation behind them. Brandon T. Jackson has to play deadly straight the stereotypes satirized in Tropic Thunder, thus his incessant jive-talking and nervous subservience have all the gallantry of Chris Tucker.
Columbus overcompensates with a top-flight supporting cast who put their money where their cheeks are. Uma Thurman's bitter, bitchy Medusa ("I used to date your daddy!" she righteously sneers at Percy) could evoke dreaded memories of Emma Peel and Poison Ivy, but she clearly relishes the job and gives it a seductively sinister glee. Pierce Brosnan's grizzled but still velvety charisma adds true nobility to the dialogue (well, most of it, although even he makes his obligatory "horse's ass" quip induce a strange smile) as much as Thurman conjures up alluring bile. But the real fun is to be had when the trio encounter Hades' Hollywood hideout, with a saucy Steve Coogan in arena rocker leather chaps and the smoldering Rosario Dawson (the Mimi of Columbus' Rent) as his reluctant bride Persephone, a trophy wife more voluptuously desperate than any of the fictional housewives on Wisteria Lane. One would love to see a black comedy spin-off starring these two mismatched myths.
The Lightning Thief, though, seems content to climb the peak of Mount Obvious, resigned to its Potter-by-numbers fate which effectively squanders the potential for a bankable franchise. Even the soundtrack lays it on thick, with ridiculous deployment of AC/DC when Luke mentions the "Highway to Hell" and a Vegas interlude at the Lotus Hotel & Casino pumping up "A Little Less Conversation" and "Poker Face" as the youths partake of a certain flower-shaped cookie which dutifully distracts them from their mission, given their inconsistent knowledge of Greek lore. Unfortunately, their obliviousness is shared by Columbus and Titley, who have no new tacks with the fantasy adventure material passed on by Riordan, who probably deserves better than to be aligned with the Potter plagiarisms. His Percy Jackson is reduced to a Half-Blood Fool.
1492 words later, and now here we are talking about the streamlined Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, a late-blooming sequel which jumps straight ahead to a foreign director, the amusingly-named Thor Freudenthal, and brings in Green Lantern scribe Marc Guggenheim to adapt the second of Riordan's five volumes. The Prisoner of Azkaban this ain't, with Percy Jackson still unresolved in his daddy issues and having regressed in his confidence and fighting skills. The three principal stars return fairly more seasoned, with Lerman having wowed in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Daddario opting for the C-list scream queen route thanks to Texas Chainsaw 3-D. Brandon T. Jackson, meanwhile, is stewarded out of the picture quickly despite being written less gratingly than before, the better to make room for a few new trekkers in Percy's latest quest.
First is Clarisse (Leven Rambin), daughter of Ares and doppelganger for Katniss Everdeen. It's she whose stamina and arrogance puts her at the top of the Camp Half-Blood student body, as the newly-introduced camp owner Dionysus (Stanley Tucci with an amusing drinking problem; Chiron appears recast with Anthony Stewart Head) appoints her to head an expedition to locate the Golden Fleece, which is the only cure for the sickly memorial tree, erected by her father Zeus after she has fallen, that is the source of the camp's protective force field. But the culprit, once again being the blandly malevolent Luke, outs himself to Percy and drives the conflicted hero into further rebellious action alongside Grover, Annabeth and a one-eyed half-brother named Tyson (Douglas Smith).
Tyson essentially serves the bumbling sidekick role the MIA Grover did in the original, but with Chris Columbus receding into a production credit, Freudenthal's overall approach is more (non-union German?) Spielberg equivalent than even Columbus could claim. The film is like a less frenetic version of The Goonies, replete with intrigue on an abandoned, ancient ship (with Confederate zombies instead of pirates), but also cribs liberally from Jaws (the Charybdis is mistaken initially for a swarm of shark fins) and Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in the finale involving a golden chest Luke uses to re-animate Kronos, the dreaded Titan who ate his own godly children but was foiled by the three Olympian brothers. Like the first film, the movie's set pieces involve some cute variation on a classic Greek figure, such as when The Grey Sisters appear as reckless, sassy taxi drivers (played by TV comediennes Missi Pyle, Mary Birdsong and Yvette Nicole Brown) who spill the beans about a numerical prophecy which concerns Percy. Also, in one of the minor nods to the star-powered stunt-casting from before, Luke's papa Hermes finally turns up, but less as Joe Pantoliano's boorish stepfather from the original and more in the form of a UPS clerk played by the dashing Nathan Fillion, the Canadian Bruce Campbell himself, thus making the resentful Luke seem more like the dull brat he really is when the former Captain Mal drolly steals his one big scene.
There is a way to make teenaged conflict work on a dramatic level which also incorporates time-honored folklore, but between both Percy Jackson movies, lackluster screenplays and badly-calculated direction are the main curses which prevent them from scaling such heights. Watching the prejudiced Annabeth belittle and berate the adolescent Tyson, who looks like the son of Encino Man, in such a shallow, unpleasant manner feels like a gross misjudgment, and when Grover finally reappears as the maid for gigantic cyclops Polyphemus (boomingly voiced by Ron "Hellboy" Perlman!), it's back to the old shuck-and-jive. Even Percy Jackson himself doesn't appear to get a fully-satisfying reaffirmation, a further shame considering Lerman is capable of greatness. Even more than the first film, whose fractured familial bonds were at least consistent with Columbus' not-so-auteur stature, this is dramatically stunted and as clockwork as the Colchis bull who charges the camp at the beginning. The movie brings Percy back to square one out of sheer laziness and the beats are all too familiar.
Say what you will about the Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games film series, but at least they each created their own respective worlds and populated them with convincing analogues for their types of fan, allowing people to lose themselves in the stories. With the Percy Jackson duo, there is a crushing sense of impersonality and dreary obligation which goes against any types of vicarious thrill one could ascertain. At least Thor Freudenthal is a marked improvement over Chris Columbus, especially in regards to staging his action scenes and creating more indelible images. Such moments of marvel as Percy and friends riding a candy-colored Hippocampus as well as getting sucked into the Bermuda Triangle crackle with joy and tension, but ultimately the Diary of a Wimpy Kid director is fitted for the same strait-jacket as the over-qualified Lerman.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters feels direct-to-DVD caliber through and through, which will definitely not be enticing if there is a third installment. Too much time has passed between the first and second, and the cast are clearly getting too old for their parts. Much like Columbus and Hughes' own Home Alone series, don't be shocked if you find the second sequel recast and ushered out to an even more minute degree of fanfare. The gods are not that crazy, after all.