Some directors probably don’t mind being under strict supervision by studio heads when trying to adapt a beloved book series to screen. But there are also times when a director needs to be allowed to take some liberties with the material in order to help keep things from being too bogged down. The first two Harry Potter films instantly spring to mind in this case when compared to director Chris Columbus’s latest, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
When given the task of bringing The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets to life one can only imagine the guidelines set forth by the studio, let alone the fact that audiences across the entire globe would have such high expectations. By making these films feel like a sluggish film version of every single page, they have turned out to be the most boring of the film series.
While Chamber of Secrets was an improvement upon Sorcerer’s Stone, they both still pale in comparison to the best of the lot, Prisoner of Azkaban. The secret is to give a director the freedom to find a way to condense things to keep the plot moving along so the general audiences who are not avid readers of the novels don’t feel like they have to plod through the filler to get to the interesting stuff.
Screenwriter Craig Titley is no Steve Kloves and I have not read any of the Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan, but one thing appeared to be clear – get the audience in and out and show them a grand time. You can tell that were possibly scenes trimmed here and there (as is the case with every film) but in this case it was a good thing as the film throws you into the midst of things and sets you forth on an epic adventure of mythological proportions.
One evening Zeus (Sean Bean) meets with his brother Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) to discuss the disappearance of Zeus’ lightning bolt. It must be returned in 14 days or there will be a war between humans and gods. We quickly learn that Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a demi-god born to his human mother, Sally (Catherine Keener) who has shacked up with the intolerable yet appropriately named Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano).
After Percy learns of his demi-god status he is whisked away to Camp Half Blood where he must learn the rules of the trade and strengthen his powers in order to get on with the task of finding his now kidnapped mother who is being held by Hades (Steve Coogan) while he makes life literal Hell for his against-her-will lover Persephone (Rosario Dawson, reteaming with director Columbus after starring in his atrocious Rent debacle). Percy is joined on his adventure by Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who happens to be Athena’s (Melina Kanakaredes) daughter, and his best friend, Grover (Tropic Thunder’s Brandon T. Jackson), who is really a faun.
The audience is treated to swords-and-sandals action scenes (to find some magical pearls necessary to return home from the underworld) set in everything from Medusa’s garden of stoned humans, a hydra-guarded Parthenon replica in Nashville, to a lotus-induced Lady Gaga trip out in Vegas. Meanwhile, a worldwide storm is brewing as things heat up in Olympus as the clock counts down to whether Percy can collect all the pearls, save his mother, defeat the “surprise” antagonist, and save the world by returning the bolt to Zeus and meet his father for the first time which is forbidden of all gods.
Chris Columbus makes a triumphant return to the director’s chair after Rent and I Love You, Beth Cooper and he seems to be having a lot more fun with this material than he did with either of his Harry Potter contributions. Logan Lerman as Percy is great in the lead role and manages to carry the film while making jokes referencing High School Musical and looking like the twin brother of Zac Efron. Alexandra Daddario keeps the two friends in line with her giant blue eyes and Brandon T. Jackson gets to make more riffs here than he was able to in Tropic Thunder (even if he was used to better effect in Ben Stiller’s comedic masterpiece).
Many have complained that the main characters have been aged inappropriately from junior high to high school, but I’d personally much rather watch these rag-tags save the day than yet another 12-year-old. It’s just another piece of the screenwriting process that managed to save the day and keep itself from seeming like just another rip-off.
As much fun as the film is, some might be surprised to learn the film is based on a novel with the way that some of it feels like it’s based on a video game. The plot bounds along and Percy fights and conquers each level’s boss to earn his pearls and move along to the next bad guy. But for once a film has made me actually want to read the novels it’s based on instead of skipping them altogether and just waiting for the next movie to come along (here’s looking at you, boy wizard.)
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