With the Harry Potter franchise winding to a close along comes the new kid on the block, Percy Jackson. Despite the protests of director Chris Columbus (who helmed the first two Potter movies and produced the third)—“It’s nothing like Harry Potter,” he said, “Harry Potter is about wizardry and this is Greek mythology.”— Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief plays like the boy wizard’s long lost cousin.
Percy (Zac Efron look-a-like Logan Lerman) is an awkward teenager with problems in school, an unhappy home life and a lout of a step father who smells like Limberger cheese. On a school trip he is attacked by a winged daughter of the night who accuses him of stealing Zeus’s lightening bolt, the most powerful weapon ever created. Thus begins his Poseidon adventure. He is swept away to a mysterious training camp by his mother Sally (Catherine Keener) and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) his best friend / satyr protector. There he learns about his true heritage; that his mother had an affair with Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and he is a demi-god—the son of a human and a god. He’s told the world is full of such half gods, some whose names cannot be divulged, he’s told are famous, “like White House famous.” To set things right and avoid a war of the gods which would likely destroy earth he must find the lightening bolt, return it to Zeus (Sean Bean) and rescue his mother from Hades (Steve Coogan), god of the underworld.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is its own movie, but there are unmistakable comparisons to Harry Potter. Percy may or may not have stolen Zeus’s lightening but he certainly steals some of Harry’s thunder. The lead character is half human, half supernatural; he goes to Hogwarts… er, I mean, Camp Half Blood to fine tune his powers; he chums around with Hermione and Ron types called Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Grover and there’s even a mid-air Quidditch match… er, I mean battle scene. Yes it may be derivative, but its mish mash of Potter and Jason and the Argonauts is really fun and should appeal to tweens who will get caught up in the action / adventure.
The action is fun—there are battles with a Minotaur, a run-in with Medusa (Uma Thurman) and enough eight headed hydras to make Ray Harryhausen proud—but this is a much more straightforward movie than any of the Harry Potter films. The lore doesn’t run as deep, the dialogue is much more pedestrian and it is traditionally structured. But Chris Columbus hits all the rights notes for a kid’s movie, although it would have been interesting (and probably much cooler) to see what a director like Terry Gilliam could have done to stretch the fantasy elements of the story.
Whether or not Percy Jackson & the Olympians turns into some kind of Potter juggernaut is anyone’s guess. If nothing else it’s an imaginative fantasy for tweens and a crash course in Greek mythology to prep kids for Clash of the Titans coming later this year.