Disaffected teenager Percy Jackson has his life both turned upside down and made sense of when he learns that he is the son of Greek god, and that Olympus and its inhabitants continue to live alongside our world. His new, powerful existence comes with a challenge, as he has but ten days to prove that he didn’t steal Zeus’ lightning bolt and must prevent a war between the gods.

Wannabe Harry Potter lacks the magic touch.

The quest for the next Harry Potter is really starting to get repetitive. Since J.K. Rowling’s tales of the boy wizard and his new home at Hogwarts went from being a phenomenal book series to a multi-billion dollar film franchise, the young adult aisle of bookstores has been clogged with hopeful movie executives scanning back page synopses.

Each failed successor has stuck to a thematic format and disappeared with little fanfare: Eragon gave us an ordinary boy who becomes the master of a dragon; The Seeker: The Dark is Rising gave us an ordinary boy who becomes a powerful sign-seeker to depose the forces of darkness; Stormbreaker gave us an ordinary boy who becomes an MI6 agent. Plainly the world is filled with ordinary boys who dream of acquiring special powers.

The distinction that Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, adapted from the first of Rick Riordan’s ongoing series of children’s novels, enjoys is that it was directed by Chris Columbus, the boyish but nonetheless now veteran filmmaker who helmed both 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Columbus has long acknowledged children as both an audience and inspiration, whether through Mrs. Doubtfire or Home Alone, and you would imagine he knows what he’s doing.

So why is Percy Jackson so perfunctory and uninspiring? The key distinction between Percy and Harry appears to be that Rick Riordan is no J.K. Rowling. Each failed children’s fantasy series makes you begrudgingly admire the sheer depth of Rowling’s magical world – she’s presented a sturdy blueprint to her long-time screen adaptor, Steve Kloves. The world of Percy Jackson, by contrast, feels paper thin. Decisions read as summary, characters don’t have fully thought out motivations. I don’t think Columbus was challenged by this material. His shots give off little sense of wonder, no matter how technically impressive the digital effects are.

The focus is also older. Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is already in the final days of high school when we meet him, a disaffected teen struggling with dyslexia and the apparent horror of having to attend a state school. His stepfather (Joe Pantoliano) is a verbally abusive jerk, but his loving mother (Katherine Keener) meekly tolerates him; he’s got so many troubles that he’s either special or truly screwed.

Once a museum visit turns into a supernatural attack, Percy gets a new paradigm. He’s the son of a Greek god, who continues to oversee the world, and his uncle Zeus (Sean Bean) has given Percy and his father, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) just ten days to return his stolen lightning bolt, which is his most powerful weapon, lest a war in the heavens should begin and destroy humanity.

Percy’s wheelchair bound teacher, Mr. Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) is soon revealed as a centaur, while Percy’s friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is a satyr (half man, half goat) charged with protecting him. A brief note about Grover: as both scripted by Craig Titley and played by Jackson, he is a monumentally annoying character. Prone, as Royal Tenenbaum would put it, to talking some jive, he’s an extreme overdose of Wayans, and probably puts American race relations back 70 or so years. I have not hoped so fervently for a character to die since Jar Jar Binks made his first 'ex-squeeze me" gag.

Key plot points come with prosaic limitations. Percy trains, for example, at Camp Half Blood, while the trio of brothers who are the key gods – Zeus, Poseidon and the deposed Hades (Steve Coogan, cast in a failed bid to attain comic levity) – are simply referred to as 'The Big Three". Occasionally a scene surprises, as when Percy, Grover and the third wheel of their quest party, Percy’s looming love interest and Athena’s daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), travel across the underworld and witness an endless stream of broken dreams floating by, but the various tasks are unrewarding even with scenery chewing cameos by the likes of Uma Thurman as Medusa.

It’s hard to see who will cherish this film. Perhaps the lack of satisfaction stems from the subtext – the aloof gods ultimately represent absent parents, with their celestial responsibilities a way of explaining why they can’t be around for their kids. This is a very costly and long way of apologising for missing that school play or sports match. Despite the film’s title, lightning only strikes once.


1 hour 59 min
In Cinemas 11 February 2010,
Wed, 06/30/2010 - 11