Monday, August 30, 2010

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief Review (Review #110)


It's Clash of the Titans: Junior Edition!

I blame all this on The Lord of The Rings. This insane pattern of hyphenating everything to make it appear to make a film merely one part of an epic story. All the pretenders and imitators haven't learned the lesson of The Lord of the Rings: that Tolkien's story is one very long story that was broken up into three novels. One can't read The Two Towers or perhaps The Return of the King without having some knowledge of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis created a series (The Chronicles of Narnia) but each of the novels can be independent of the others. The Harry Potter novels (and films) all have Harry Potter in the title because they are part of the title. It's not The Sorcerer's Stone or The Half-Blood Prince; it's Harry Potter AND the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter AND the Half-Blood Prince. Having Harry Potter in the title is correct, and note: they don't hyphenate. Perhaps it's a sign of American laziness. People nowadays don't want to make the connection between say, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Prince Caspian (or The Magician's Nephew or The Last Battle) or just have such a lack of knowledge that they couldn't if they wanted to.

I went on this tangent to draw a connection to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. I've always known it as The Lightning Thief and fail to understand why the producers trust the core audience that little that they think they need to remind them that this is the first novel in a series of five books. The lavish title is clearly to indicate that this is going to be a series, a franchise, and there is a danger in that if it fails (artistically or financially) it makes it look all pompous and slightly pretentious. However, they've made that gamble. Have they succeeded in making a franchise? Not quite.

We begin with Zeus (Sean Bean) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) meeting at the door of Olympus (which is now at the Empire State Building). Zeus accuses Poseidon's son of stealing his lightning bolt (hence, The Lightning Thief) and demands that he return it within 14 days or there will be war. We shift to Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) who can spend long periods of time underwater. Can we make a connection between Percy and Poseidon, god of the sea? Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Percy has a best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) who uses crutches (this is relevant). Through a series of attacks on Percy by some sort of bat and a Minotaur, Percy discovers he's a demigod: a product of gods and mortal parents. In short, he's illegitimate.

Grover (who is a satyr, hence the crutches) takes him to Hogwart's, er, Camp Half-Blood (a summer camp/safe place for these divine bastards) where Percy's teacher Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) unmasks himself as a centaur. At Camp X-Men (I mean Half-Blood), he meets Annabeth (Alexandra Dadarrio), Athena's girl, and Luke (Jake Abel), Hermes' kid. Percy (which, curious, makes me wonder if it's short for, um, could it be...PERSEUS?!) embarks on a quest to find the Three Pearls of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, in an effort to get his human mother (Catherine Keener) back from the dead. Percy, Grover, and Annabeth do this by going to three locations and facing the mythic monsters Medusa (Uma Thurman), a hydra, and the land of the Lotus Eaters.

Here's the thing about The Lightning Thief: it isn't well-thought out. How could I say that, especially since I have not read any of Rick Riordan's books? Simple: I figured out who the actual 'lightning thief' was after our heroes went through their first adventure, all without having read any of the books. Once I solved the mystery (which, frankly, it's pretty obvious who the thief is, so obvious I wonder if we were meant to solve the mystery before the kids did), I didn't have to worry about any sense of suspense or excitement.

I give credit where credit is due: if it's Riordan's intention to subtly introduce Greek mythology to kids via the Percy Jackson & The Olympian books, more power to him. And to think all those hours I wasted by reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology...

However, here's a point of logic with The Lightning Thief that I have yet to have answered. Percy doesn't know who his real father is, right? Therefore, he would have no way of knowing how to get to Olympus, let alone steal anything from his Uncle Zeus. That being the case, why would Zeus accuse someone completely ignorant of his existence of being the thief? That just never made sense to me, unless of course it was to get the ball rolling, and thus it captures the Number One GOLDEN RULE OF FILMMAKING: Something will happen if the plot requires it to.

I'd like to add that when we're first introduced to Zeus and Poseidon, I didn't think, 'These are two immortal Greek gods'. I thought, 'This is Boromir and Journeyman (a show I'm unapologetic about having watched) trying so very, very hard to convince me they're anything other than Sean Bean & Kevin McKidd posing and trying to be very grand in such a silly manner with silly costumes'.

In fact, Chris Columbus couldn't really get any of his actors (adult and juvenile) to be convincing as either divine, semi-divine, or human. It's a curious thing that Columbus appears to be the go-to man for adapting children's books for film when he seems to have great difficulty connecting to what made said books so appealing. This is his second turn at bat in this endeavor (the first two Harry Potter films being the first) and like in those, The Lightning Thief didn't translate to film as well as they could have. I can't say if it was because like in the Harry Potter films he directed, he was too slavishly devoted to trying to put everything from the book in the film (since I haven't read any of the books). I think it comes from Columbus' too strict efforts to make them "children's films", movies that should be shown to those on the same intellectual level as viewers of Dora the Explorer or The Wiggles.

My private theory is that since he directed Home Alone and got wonderful results from cast & crew in that film he now is seen as adept at all films geared toward children. However, with The Lightning Thief he and scriptwriter Craig Titley spent more time aping other films (such as the original Clash of the Titans or even Star Wars, when Percy hears his father's voice all but say 'Use the Force' while in the Lotus Hotel sequence) and putting in things that seem to stretch the running time (hearing Poker Face at same sequence) to get whatever adventure the books had into the film.

Never were adults in a 'children's film' so sadly wasted. Melina Kanakaredes had I think one scene at the end of the film as Athena, and if you can't give a talented and beautiful actress much to do in a film that involves the Greek gods (and side note, she's perfect as a beautiful Greek goddess) then you frankly shouldn't be filming. The same can be said of Keener, Thurman, Brosnan, and Joe Pantoliano as Keener's brutish boyfriend (although now her reasons for staying with someone as awful as Joey Pants would explain so much about smart women who are with stupid men).

As stated earlier, Bean and McKidd tried their best but fell flat, it was almost as if their hearts weren't in it. Faring slightly better was Rosario Dawson as Persephone as well as the kids. Lorman's Percy started out as weak but as the film progressed he became more aware of his powers and grew in character. Daddario reversely starts out strong as a new Xena: Warrior Princess (another story The Lightning Thief apparently paid homage to) and by the end became a slightly admiring fan of Percy. Both gave good performances: not great, but good. Jackson's Grover fared the worse: I wondered if he was suppose to be annoying (which he was most of the time). I would have preferred Sesame Street's Grover over Jackson's Grover.

There was one scene in The Lightning Thief that was impressive: when they go to Hades in order to get Miss Jackson back. Visually, it was quite impressive, which couldn't be said of the last scene when Percy & Annabeth meet their parents in Mt. Olympus/The Empire State Building. The special effects in 1940's The Thief of Bagdad with Sabu were more impressive than those in 2009's The Lightning Thief with Logan Lorman...and more believable. That's a ringing endorsement on the former, and a sad comment on the latter.

If the film had attempted to delve more into the danger and fear the quest Percy & Annabeth took to clear his name and stop the war in the heavens, The Lightning Thief could have been far greater. Instead, Columbus decided to play it safe, to go for something that he thought would appeal specifically to kids than to the kid in all of us.

There are some really strong themes here that weren't explored. The Lightning Thief isn't a bad film, but a slightly frustrating one, a film that leaves you asking, 'if only...', 'if only...'

When arriving at Camp Half-Blood, Grover explains that some of the god's progeny lead simple lives while others, "not to brag, are White House famous". I wonder who this satyr (who is black) is referring to? Chester A. Arthur? Grover Cleveland? I do wonder what President could be seen as divine (or at least semi-divine) in Hollywood...

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