A great family film, with just the right measures of action, mythology, humor, and adventure.

James Plath's picture

Author Rick Riordan says on one of the bonus features that his popular series about youthful half-gods in contemporary times began as a bedtime story. I don't know how rough that first ad-libbed version was, but his juvenile novels are wonderfully structured.

If you remember your classical mythology, the gods' lives were like one big soap opera. They plotted, they schemed, they got jealous, they fought, they betrayed, they punished, and they had more romantic dalliances than you could fit into an episode of "As the World Turns." Sometimes they had affairs with mortals, and their offspring--demigods like Hercules, Achilles, and Perseus--became larger-than-life heroes of the human world. If you remember the plot of "Clash of the Titans," the gods played with human lives as if they were pawns on a chessboard.

But what if the gods didn't die with ancient Greek civilization? What if they were real immortals who still live today? What would they be like? What forms would they take when they came down to earth? And what kind of adventures might their half-god, half-human offspring have? Well, in this film adaptation of the first book, someone has stolen the lightning bolt from Zeus (Sean Bean), who's convinced it must be the son of his brother-rival, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd).

That's the brilliant premise behind Riordan's series, with the first installment brought to the big screen by Chris Columbus--the guy who directed two kid point-of-view hits ("Home Alone" and "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York") and the first two Harry Potter films. Columbus not only knows the action-fantasy model, but like John Hughes before him he has a knack for understanding what his young characters think, fear, and secretly desire. Yet, the Harry Potter films weren't just teen and 'tween fare, and neither is "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." It's a full-fledged family film that adults can also enjoy. One big reason is that the plot cleverly incorporates elements and stories from Greek mythology, so the film is full of things which, once recognized, bring a smile. And unlike films intended only for children, there are no goofball or clueless adults. All the characters have real flesh on their bones, and the special effects are interesting enough--especially the water features.

In the books, Percy and his friends were junior high school students, but in the film they've been promoted to high school--ostensibly because how else could they get behind the wheel of a car, as required in several scenes? In the book they took the bus as they went on a quest to find the pearls they could use to enter the underworld to rescue someone dear to them, but cars get these young heroes from New Jersey to Nashville to Las Vegas to Hollywood more quickly and with more flair.

Logan Lerman does a fine job playing Percy Jackson, a boy who spends seven minutes at a time sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool because it helps him relax. He lives at home with his mother (Catherine Keener) and an abusive slob of a stepfather (Joe Pantoliano). But his life changes dramatically when he's on a museum field trip learning about classical gods and one of the teachers turns into a fury and tries to attack him. Suddenly it's scramble mode, as his crippled best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) throws off his crutches and his wheelchair-bound teacher, Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) loses his chair. They beat a hasty exit for his home, telling his mother there's no way to hide anymore. And they take him to the only place he'll be safe: Camp Half-Blood, a sort of Hogwarts in the woods for demigods to learn ancient combat with shields and swords and train to become modern-day heroes. Here, he's instantly "chosen" as a friend by Luke (Jake Abel), son of Hermes (winged-footed messenger of the gods), and enters into a tentative relationship with the attractive warrior Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena (goddess of wisdom and battle).

It turns out that Percy could spend all that time underwater because he's the son of Poseidon, whom the Romans called Neptune. And he quickly learns that his best friend was actually his protector, a satyr with hairy goat legs and a Hugh Hefner-sized libido. And Mr. Brunner? He's really Chiron, the centaur, and it's more than a little enjoyable seeing Brosnan take this shape, just as it is watching Uma Thurman have fun as Medusa, who appears in contemporary times as the owner of a garden statuary. Naturally, she doesn't have to pay wholesale for her statues! Fun too is an outing at a Vegas casino that's set up to be the modern equivalent of the island of lotus-eaters that detained Odysseus and his men.

The pacing is quick enough to keep you from wandering into the kitchen to make a snack, and the picaresque journey that Percy, Annabeth, and Grover undertake has appropriate dangers along the way. Apart from a line that awkwardly sets up a brief playing of "Highway to Hell" as they begin their journey to the underworld to confront Hades (Steve Coogan) with the help of the reluctant Persephone (Rosario Dawson), it's also fairly crisply written. And it's all good clean fun. Aside from the expected fantasy violence, there are only a few minor swear words used, which earned "Percy Jackson" a PG rating. People who've read the books will be split on the film, with purists resenting parts that were chopped off or added, and others happy that Columbus did such a good job bringing the characters and events to life. Some of the creatures are filmed a little quickly or blurred to cover up the CGI work, but for the most part the effects are, if unspectacular, at least decent. There's occasional humor, a hint of romance in the wings, and an engaging trio to anchor the plot. It's a slightly different story from the book, but you get the feeling that because some of the deleted scenes contain some pretty important exposition that some tough cuts had to be made to bring the movie in under 120 minutes. I think it works, and my two children (ages 12 and 8) and wife loved it.

There are quite a few pitch-black scenes in this film that block detail even in 1080p, but beyond those scenes and some of the creature sequences where there seems to be deliberate blurring to blend in the CGI work, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer (@31MBPS) to a 50-gig disc brings things sharply into focus, with great colors, deep black levels, and a nice sense of three-dimensionality. There's a light level of film grain in some scenes, but overall it's a decent picture. "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The audio is a robust and dynamic English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that really has a lot of pop during the action and special effects scenes, with the entire room rumbling and a strong response from the surround speakers. Once you get the volume adjusted at just the right level the mix is also very good, with the lowest volume dialogue and the highest volume effects not so far apart that it's disappointing on the one end or too unbearable on the other. Dialogue is nicely prioritized. Additional audio options are Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English Descriptive for the sight-impaired. Subtitles are in English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

All things considered, for a release this size there really isn't much in the way of bonus features. Ten extended and deleted scenes never run more than a few minutes each, though some of them introduce characters like Thalia who were important in the book but omitted in the film. Ten there are five featurettes: "Secrets of the Gods," "The Book Comes to Life," "Inside Camp Half-Blood," "On Set with Brandon T. Jackson," and "Meet the Demigods," all of which feel like pre-release promos that could well have been shown on TV. Finally, there's a "Discover Your Powers Quiz" that's memorable mostly for the randomness of the questions. Are you most like Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, or ? I've seen better quizzes, but if you do it together as a family it's good for a few laughs. Maybe 10 seconds worth. Fans of graphic novels can follow directions to a free sneak peek of the new Lightning Thief graphic novel. And there are previews that play before the movie menu that you have to skip over. Why must studios punish us like that?

The best bonus features in this combo pack are probably the DVD and Digital Copy. Combo packs rock!

Bottom Line:
It's not completely faithful to the book, but "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is a great family film, with just the right measures of action, mythology, humor, and adventure.


Film Value