Scenes of other worlds that resemble Renaissance painting depictions of heaven and hell; gods that want to throw these worlds into conflict; an academy to train and nurture otherwise ostracized demigods and other not-like-us teenagers – no, it’s not part of the Harry Potter franchise but “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”, directed by Chris Columbus, written by Craig Titley and Rick Riordan, a film whose cinematic flourishes and well-pitched story surprisingly lack any true affection.
Another kind of Poseidon Adventure, the story introduces us to Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) of New York City, seemingly dyslexic, supposedly afflicted with ADD, who likes nothing more than to sit underwater for preposterously long amounts of time. His best friend is the allegedly handicapped Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), who’s fiercely devoted to him. One of his teachers at his school for kids with special needs is Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosman), who is also allegedly handicapped. His single mom, Sally (Catherine Keener) has raised him, along with his step dad, Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano), an oafish Neanderthal brute; he definitely is emotionally handicapped.
After a bizarre attack on Percy during a school visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we are let in on what these handicaps mask: Percy is the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), Grover is a satyr charged with his protection, Mr. Brunner is a centaur who administers a camp set up by Poseidon for Percy’s training. Along with his brothers Zeus (Sean Bean) and Hades (Steve Coogan), Poseidon is about to engage in a war that will destroy the planet. The cause? Someone stole Zeus’s lightning bolt and Olympian fingers point at Percy. The movie describes Percy’s training, his introduction to fellow spawn of Greek gods, his descent into hell to rescue his mother, his discovery of the identity of the true lightning thief, and his return of the bolt to its rightful owner.
The movie nicely integrates Greek myths into contemporary society. The scenes in turn are funny, weird, frightening, powerful, and awesome. There’s ego-bluster, power grabs, and some extraordinary visuals that are pitch-perfect, awe-inspiring but not overwhelming and gimmicky. Uma Thurman is Medusa, with a head of coiled snakes and whose eyes, even without the movie personification, could turn someone to stone. The Gate to Hell is set near the Hollywood sign (makes sense: both represent lost souls and broken dreams). Hell is a cross between William Blake and Tim Burton while Mount Olympus looks like a compound envision by D.W. Griffith and designed by Frank Gehry. Mythical beasts are appropriately savage, and the fight scenes, though gruesome, are tempered to not derail the narrative.
You can relate to the children of the lusty Olympians: single, mortal moms have raised them. They have what mortals would call handicaps but which are really undeveloped powers. Percy’s dyslexia results from his native tongue being ancient Greek, his ADD results from his destiny to be a man of action. You can understand their plights as you can understand, though not approve of, the antics of their Olympian parents.
While Columbus ably maintains a steady tone throughout this action-packed odyssey across the United States, down into hell, and up into Mount Olympus, he chooses to downplay emotional scenes that would have given the narrative a sense of urgency. Though the relationship between Percy and Sally describes a mutual love, it doesn’t enact it. Percy’s harrowing journey into hell was, after all, to rescue her; and though the idea of going to hell to rescue one’s mother seems obvious, nothing in the acting of either Lerman or Kanakaredes convinces us. Similarly, there’s something going on between Percy and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena. But it’s more platonic than anything that could potentially simmer and boil over and thus lend another layer of depth and feeling to an otherwise fine film.