A common wisdom about the Harry Potter series is that it kicked up a notch when Alfonso Cuaron took up the reins for episode three. Previously, Chris Columbus had been in charge of the first two films. To be fair, Curaron was handed a better, more complex and engaging narrative than either of the first two books allowed, and the cast had definitely matured somewhat. For a few months, pretty much every piece of Potter press I read contained some kind of comparison between the two directors, with most finding in favour of Cuaron.
Columbus has a little more on his side with Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. His main cast are a crucial step or two older than the Potter munchkins had been, and the storyline’s rich associations with Greek mythology offer the occasional resonance that goes much deeper than early Rowling. Above all else, he now has experience at just this kind of thing, including being snapped at when a movie doesn’t quite please audiences as much as they had hoped.
It is perhaps because of these things that Percy Jackson is a significantly better film than either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets. No, it doesn’t compare so well to Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban, but that’s a genuinely high standard to meet.
The story here is simple but with pretensions of being classical. The titular Jackson, played by a casual, pleasant Logan Lerman, is a young man diagnosed as suffering from dyslexia and ADD. That’s a pretty bad hand to be dealt, I’m sure, but near the start of the story he learns another shocking truth about his nature: he’s also a demigod. Sucks for Percy. So, cue some rites of passage drama writ large and, before long, adventure that’s loosely in the vein of some well-known Greek myths. Telling you exactly which myths might verge on spoiler material, but it’s safe to say none of them is too obscure even for a school-age audience. There seems to be a universal appetite for the stories of Greek mythology amongst all the pre-pubescent boys I’ve ever known, and most of the girls too – challenged only by their love of dinosaurs. Kudos must go out to Rick Riordan for cooking up such a “can’t fail” premise for a young adult novel series.
Riordan’s idea of a demigod bootcamp, in lieu of Potter‘s school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, seems to hew rather too closely to a well known and popular paradigm, and it does encourage a degree of cynicism. The book and, therefore, the film might have done well to go a markedly different route just to try to avoid comparison.
There’s a rather expensive looking supporting cast in the film who for the most part play cameo roles as the deities and creatures of myth: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Uma Thurman and so on. In direct comparison to Clash of the Titans, another film that recently raided the ham pantry for its godly characters, the supporting cast in Jackson definitely register as less laughably over-the-top and are probably one of the film’s key pleasures for audience members old enough to drink. While Steve Coogan, who plays Hades, probably should not be encouraged to take more roles of this ilk (see the Night at the Museum movies), it’s obviously effortless for him, and he comes out looking pretty good.
I’m rather pleased with the Blu-ray transfer, particularly the soundtrack. Robert Shoup and Steve Bissinger’s teams have done some vibrant work on the sound editing and mixing, and while a great deal of it is far from subtle, it adds some fun to the experience. At the same time, cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt has done a most admirable job, and has kept a film that features a lot of tricky shots with firelight sources from becoming muddy, murky and indistinct. If you’re a videophile who makes Blu-ray purchases in order to get the best out of your HD set and surround sound set-up, I think Percy Jackson will past muster.
Unfortunately for audiences less concerned with the shiny surface or the craft of the film, the storytelling and emotional beats that run through the middle section are less compelling. It’s a take-it-or-leave it trifle, ultimately, no matter the credibility of some of its components. I’d recommend a lazy Sunday afternoon for this one.
There’s not much chance we’ll see any sequels, despite Rick Riordan having written four follow-up novels so far and with more to come. It was unrealistic to expect another Harry Potter here, either in terms of box office or in audience enthusiasm. As straight-down-the-middle as it is, Percy Jackson has proven to be rather more of a niche film than anyone predicted.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is released today on DVD and Blu-ray across the UK, and was released last week in the US.