The Magic of ‘Percy Jackson’

If “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” tells us anything, it’s that the reign of Harry Potter is coming to a close  – and Percy Jackson is eyeing his crown (or wizard hat).

It’s practically impossible to talk about the “Olympian” series without mentioning Percy Jackson’s glaring similarities to his boy wizard counterpart. Both are teenagers with hereditary magical powers; both attend some sort of educational facility for people with such talents; both travel in a trio of friends, composed of one girl and one other boy; and with this movie, they even have a director in common.

Percy, short for “Perseus,” is the demigod son of the Greek God Poseidon, who, along with Zeus, Hades, Athena and the other gods, all exist and live on in our present time. But now the gods are disguised, human-sized and wearing mortal clothing. Also, Mount Olympus is in New York (reflecting the current dominant world power).

After an encounter with one of Hades’ furies, the intellectually-troubled Percy Jackson is moved to Camp Half-Blood (ie, Hogwarts) to hone his god powers and learn the ways of battle, “300” style. More trouble brews: Zeus’s lightning bolt has been stolen, and he accuses Percy of takng it as part of a plot by Poseidon to overthrow him. The god of lightning demands it be returned to him by the Summer Solstice at midnight; in a further complication, Percy’s uncle Hades sends a minotaur to kidnap Percy’s mother in exchange for the bolt.

Of course, Percy is innocent, and must now journey across the country with his goofball satyr companion Grover (Ron) and Athen’s daughter, Annabeth (Hermione). Together, the trio sets out to rescue Percy’s mother, find the real lightning thief, and grab three pearls that will allow them to escape from the underworld once they get in.

The movie radiates with ambition. It brings along notable star power: Pierce Brosnan plays Jackson’s centaur teacher, Sean Bean (“Lord of the Rings”) plays the king of the gods and Uma Therman is brought in for a turn as Medusa.

Unfortunately, “The Lightning Thief” doesn’t seem to be capable of donning the mantle it wants, as it rushes along so quickly that we can’t get a chance to really know the characters or care for them, depriving the film of depth. You get the impression that this movie has a plane to catch as all the actors rush through their lines. The dialogue itself is all too often cringe-worthy; such as the cheesy line, “I definitely have feelings for you, I just haven’t decided whether they’re positive or negative yet.”

There are some bright spots: Uma Therman’s portrayal of Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon whose gaze turns people to stone, is a fresh re-imagining of the mythological monstrosity as someone from this day and age. She uses our fashion to her advantage, wearing sunglasses to keep her deadly gaze under control and a stylish headscarf to hide her snake hair.

What Pierce Brosnan is doing here is a mystery. He hides his famously handsome face behind a beard and mustache – isn’t that like casting Jessica Alba as the invisible woman? Other casting decisions also evoke a bit of head-scratching, such as British comedian Steve Coogan as Hades.

Ultimately, the success of the series rests on its cross-generational appeal. The Harry Potter series met our standards for entertainment: it had suspense, mystery, character development and a wellspring of subplots to retain viewers’ interests. “The Lightning Thief,” on the other hand, is a shallow, incomplete imitation of a much more capable franchise. It seems so confident of its future place on the boy wizard’s throne that it takes its viewership for granted. The trailers so aggressively advertise Chris Columbus as director that it comes off as insecure.

I’ve always been a Greek mythology buff, so I gave this series a chance. Yet the books that the film is based are known for being fast-paced, making the movie version way too fast to be enjoyable. Just because the source material is a quick read does not mean that the movie should gloss over important details of story and character development. At the very least, it could have avoided pseudo-poetic emotional moments; the few that exist in this fantasy only make the  adventure drag. “The Lightning Thief” simply cuts corners, and what’s left is just the bare core of the story, missing the layers that could have made this an engrossing adventure.

Despite its flaws, it does manage to entertain with its quirky charm. It  could even pass as a guilty pleasure, like watching Saturday morning cartoons. At least it goes beyond Harry Potter’s relative timidity. After all, the adventure mostly takes place in the modern world instead of confining itself to the safety of a school. (There’s also a scene in “The Lotus Den,” which might horrify sensitive parents, as it’s clearly a drug reference). Overall, “The Lightning Thief” is an example of wasted potential – but really, so was the first Harry Potter movie. Should they choose to do a sequel, they may yet succeed.