Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
I was somewhat shocked to learn that Chris Columbus wrote The Goonies. TMBF is a child of the '80s, and that film was a cornerstone of a youth ill-spent on filmic depictions of magic and adventure and other childhood empowerment fantasies. Um, yeah, I really really liked it. Fortunately, he didn't direct that one - that'd be the now-80-year-old Richard Donner, who needs to make more movies before he dies. I've made no secret of my dislike for Columbus, and if I find it dismaying that he was involved in one of my favourite movies - or at least one that I look back fondly on - I'd clearly not be the most objective viewer of his latest movie. But hey, I like childhood empowerment fantasies. So yeah, I tried to be as fair and impartial as I could to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I really did, I promise.
It still sucked.
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is an average teenager with average problems - dyslexia, ADHD, a long-suffering mother (Catherine Keener) and a good-for-nothing stepfather Gabe (Joe Pantoliano). He soon learns that he is in fact a demigod, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), the Greek god of the oceans; and that his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is a satyr assigned to protect him. He is brought to Camp Half-Blood, where other children of gods and mortals train to become heroes under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan), and meets his fellow demigods Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Luke (Jake Abel). But trouble is brewing among the gods - Zeus' (Sean Bean) lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect. Accompanied by Grover and Annabeth, Percy must clear his name, or an all-out war between the Olympian gods will consume the world.
This film's screenplay was credited to a Craig Titley, who is also credited for writing both the Cheaper by the Dozen movies. Haven't watched them, haven't heard good things about them, but if they were any better written than this one then, well, it's gotta be Chris Columbus' fault again. Because the writing is awful. Allow me to explain what "on-the-nose dialogue" means: early on, Percy complains to his mom about what an asshole Gabe is. Did they just meet? Is Gabe just a guy whom his mom's been dating for a week or two? No, he's his stepfather - which means Gabe is married to his mom, which means they might have possibly been in a relationship for a while beforehand, which means he and Percy must already know each other well. But when Percy whines, "Why do you put up with him?", there's no sense of any backstory to these two characters at all. It's as if they spontaneously popped into existence the moment we, the audience, first saw them. It makes the story ring false.
That's why it's called "on-the-nose". It's dialogue that's too precise, too exact, too little of anything - e.g. wit, characterization, worldbuilding details - other than just what the audience needs to know to understand the plot. Other than the three young heroes, the cast is populated by talented veterans like Keener, Brosnan and Bean, and none of them are able to deliver their lines with any conviction; in fact, they sometimes look downright embarrassed to be there. Even Brandon T. Jackson, playing a stereotypical sassy black sidekick, is saddled with some painfully unfunny lines. Only Uma Thurman as the snake-haired Medusa, Steve Coogan as Hades and Rosario Dawson as Persephone are effective, because they get to ham it up; those who have to take their roles seriously just can't rise above the lazy script. (And sometimes the dialogue is just odd. Grover eats a lotus and exclaims, "This is the best thing I've ever consumed!" Consumed?)
Why are empowerment fantasies so popular in children's literature? Because when you're a child, power is the one thing you don't have. You are always being coddled, ignored, or belittled by adults; nothing that's important to you is important to them, and what's important to them is treated like something you'll never understand. That's why stories of children who become heroes, whom adults admire and depend on, who become important, are so evergreen. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels follow that formula to the hilt - as does J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, of course. They both have child protagonists; Harry was eleven years old in his first adventure, and Percy twelve. But for some facepalm-inducing reason, the cinematic Percy is a high school senior, played by 18-year-old Logan Lerman.
This is dumb, for two reasons. First is that Lerman is annoying. When he first discovers his demi-divine powers, just in time to deliver a swordfight beatdown to Annabeth - he smirks. Maybe it's just me, but I simply cannot root for a hero who smirks all the time, especially in young-adult fantasy adventures that always tend to make Mary Sues out of their heroes. He personally kills all the monsters and solves all the problems, he single-handedly saves the day, everyone loves and admires and idolizes him, and he's just smirking through it all. All this would be more bearable if Percy were, say, an apple-cheeked 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe - or at least a better actor than Lerman, who seems mildly taken aback by the fact that he just watched his mother die.
Which brings us to the second reason: this movie is kiddie-safe all the way. Yes, Percy's mom dies, at the hands of a giant minotaur no less, and it just looks like she disappeared in a cloud of perfectly bloodless CGI. Then Hades appears and says no, she's not dead, she's just in the underworld over which he rules. Which means she's dead laa. But no, Columbus relentlessly files off anything remotely edgy or mature. Which, again, wouldn't be so bad if the heroes weren't eighteen. And after all the fantasy adventure films Columbus has made (and keeps making, goddammit), when is the man going to learn how to film a decent action scene? Percy's fights with the minotaur and the hydra are hopelessly contrived - the meaner they look, the more unbelievable it is that they can be killed by a human a fraction of their size. And there's swordfights, but the choreography is just lame.
Well, okay, it is a fantasy adventure. There are monsters and magic and fantastic vistas - I thought the underworld looked quite cool. These did actually make me consider giving this movie two-and-a-half stars, but then I remembered that's the same rating I gave the first two Potter movies. And those had neither Lerman nor Titley's screenplay. No, I guess I'm not being very fair or impartial to Columbus, a director who treats his audience exactly like an overbearing parent treats his children - patronizing, mollycoddling, and insulting. But that's not even what annoys me the most about him. What annoys me the most is that he keeps getting his hands on great material and ruining it.
NEXT REVIEW: Little Big Soldier
Expectations: if it's good, I'll forgive Jackie for The Spy Next Door