There is no formula, no secret abacus where nimble fingers can calculate the potential for success of a screenplay or concept; or in these days no solid guarantees from the hurried, caffeine fueled conversations via Iphone or Droid pushing through the four level interchange on the way to yet another studio brainstorming session – a.k.a. ‘how do we capitalize on the success of the fantasy genre picture meeting’. For me said formula or abacus set on stun fails yet again to produce a movie that is all things to all audiences – in this case, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief plays to a select tween crowd without the ‘for adults’ content that serves Pixar so well – see my review of Toy Story 3. Films these days rarely play to such a broad section of the movie going public. Failure to launch isn’t just a silly rom-com but an entire classification of films that make a lot of money to perplexed reviewers and discriminating moviegoers alike. Percy was profitable, it appealed to 50% of the folks at www.rottentomatoes.com and as such will either result in a sequel or in the least ensures director Chris Columbus will be given the reigns to yet another production. I mean since his first directing gig on Adventures In Babysitting way back in 1987, Columbus HAS earned $1.7 billion dollars collectively – but this isn’t about collective box office receipts, at least not in the way of whether or not Percy and future projects are successful. No doubt Percy’s success will be heralded as a good return on investment but to me, in the annals of cinema history, such films will serve to remind us that artfulness and creativity are hardly prerequisites for genre pics these days.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief isn’t the worst fantasy film to come along since Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings franchise and C.S Lewis novels turned feature films. There are actually some interesting bits to this story that I found refreshing over the often white-washed and precursory traipse through history where most often historical figures are altered for contemporary palatability – think Sherlock Holmes (which in this case I actually found a successful updating of the character to super hero status by Guy Ritchie) and Troy or Alexander (both films that suffered from said distinction and ultimately fell on their proverbial swords). The use of mythological figures boosted by references to characters and creatures from Dungeon’s and Dragons, among other fantasy role playing games, was a welcome delight – though heavily reliant upon bloated scenes of rampant exposition and run-off-at-the-mouth pauses where the filmmakers felt everything needed to be put into the proper context. Proper context? In a world where Greek gods are portrayed as brooding deadbeat dads and centaurs hide their horse-halves in wheelchairs, well, that’s the entire extent of context I need – thank you very much. I think if director Chris Columbus had trusted his audience more the film would have been more cinematic instead of a cumbersome and tangled history lesson.
Where Percy is at its worse is actually a byproduct of the fantasy film these days – a rush to be topical and strike while the iron is hot on the heels of other genre pictures leaving the theater. It’s like theaters these days are washing machines stuck on rinse cycle and all we can do is spin around and around helplessly with a blurry view of the same tired, stained walls of a dimly lit Laundromat. If you’re like me, you’ve most likely had your fill of the fantasy movie much the way the mid-to-late 90’s delivered so many Braveheart spin-offs as to make the market for future films of the ilk nearly impossible – or in Hollywood years, at least for the next five years. I’m immediately reminded of the gluttony of recent apocalyptic films that have been choking theaters – see my articles here and here about end-of-the-world doom and gloom pictures. If I see another walking the scorched earth in search of the light at the end of a very long tunnel movie any time soon – well, I’ll sure as hell write about.
I wanted to like Percy but in the end felt like casting choices and a weak script prevented me from caring about these kids. CGI replaces acting ability and good looks only serve to provide a prettier canvas upon which emotionless faces quarry with green screen backdrops and flimsy plot devices. Logan Lerman as Percy Jackson and Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth have about as much screen chemistry as Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart from Twilight, distracted only moderately by ‘jar-jar-binks’ comic relief, Brandon T. Jackson as Satyr Grover Underwood, performed only slightly more convincingly. Uma Thurman is lost as Medusa with wide, seemingly coke-fueled baby blues and Pierce Brosnan is sadly, utterly ridiculous as Mr. Brunner/Chiron the centaur who somehow manages to tuck his horse-half neatly inside a wheelchair. I know Steve Coogan was in this movie as a charred and peeved Hades, as was Rosario Dawson as a less than convincing Persephone. Catherine Keener checked in as the witless mom, Sally Jackson who nervously smiles after every ethereal line reading – perhaps she remains smitten, too much to take life seriously after a one time fling with Poseidon. Joe Pantoliano plays boyfriend from the trailer park Gabe Ugliano – Ugliano? Really? Who writes this stuff? Ugliano is the quintessential bad guy barking for beer and respect as if a life lesson for youngsters – don’t let your mom befriend a bum because he might just get in the way of you becoming a successful demi-god or worse, do poorly in school. I am conflicted about criticizing some of my favorite character actors but in all honesty I find it increasingly difficult to accept that no one read this script before signing on. Then again, payday is payday and a check for a franchise film means that as long as your character doesn’t get killed off you might get to cash in again on future gigs.
While I’ve never been a fan of the Potter films, I can say that at least those films were well cast with emotionally viable characters. Heavies Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, and John Hurt bring a level of believability and respect that is lost in Percy. The actors in Percy are listless and bored – No less believable were their reactions to their environment and the CGI goolies encountered a long the way. Columbus, who as you’ll recall was the director of such mega-hits as Home Alone, Home 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone and Chambers of Secrets, is no doubt a skilled filmmaker with a proven track record. Yet with such credits to his name I am baffled how he could approach the Percy script without so much as a moment of pause to resolve some very large holes in story before calling action.
If you have young children or are hopelessly young at heart, not that either of those are necessarily bad, you’ll have watched Percy by the writing of this review or added it to your Netflix queue. If you have a penchant for fantasy films with mediocre dialog and story, of less than believable fantasy settings with characters that are frequently tissue thin, devoid of genuine human emotions and otherwise stilted in tween-movie-goer-fashion, you’ll ignore this recipe for failed apple pie. If you prefer your cinematic experience to go beyond a soup-like concoction, you’re better served to stick with Potter and in small amounts, C.S Lewis. The Lord of the Rings delivers a much better film and best of all, there are three of them and if we’re lucky a fourth (Hobbit) in the not too distant future.
If the success of Percy is any indication of things to come, we can expect to see ever more frequently films where the main characters look good under hot lights but come across as flat, emotionless automatons going through preconceived notions of story we’ve heard too frequently coming from the same stale sources.