Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians novels earn something akin to a Harry Potter treatment in The Lightning Thief, the first film in what Fox hopes will be the next big tween fantasy franchise.
Like the Potter films, it's a quest tale and a piece of a coming-of-age puzzle. Like Potter, it has splendid effects, young little-known actors in the leads and a colorful collection of character actors surrounding them.
Like the first Potter films, it was directed by Chris Columbus. And like them, it lacks much that one could call the spark of life. It's perfunctory, watchable but obvious. Impressive moments flail up against dull staging. Flippant, funny lines are too few and far between.
Percy, played by Logan Lerman, sort of Shia LaBeouf by way of Christian Slater, is a high school kid with ADHD and dyslexia, a "special" kid who isn't fitting in, except when he's at the bottom of the school pool. Then, his substitute teacher turns into a raging Fury, his best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), flings aside his crutches to defend him and his favorite teacher (Pierce Brosnan) rises from his wheelchair to reveal that he's a centaur. Yes, he jokes. "I have a real horse's ass."
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Percy, it turns out, is the son of Poseidon. Now Zeus (Sean Bean) has lost his lightning bolt, and the gods of Olympus are breaking into factions for a war. Percy's mortal mom (Catherine Keener) is snatched by Hades (Steve Coogan). Percy is pursued by Medusa (Uma Thurman), faces a Hydra and a Minotaur as he searches for the underworld, with the help of a magic map.
Columbus trots us through the introductions, the "Half Bloods" camp where demi-gods like Percy and the cute Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, train like Spartans. The film plods between locations. But give Columbus his due. Once Percy, Grover and Annabeth reach those locations, funny and spectacular things occur.
Watch the way Thurman oh-so-carefully tosses Medusa's hair when she hisses at Percy, "I used to date your daddy." Check out Coogan's seen-it-all, done-it-all take on Hades. Relish the too-sexy Rosario Dawson's riff on Hades' unhappy mate, Persephone.
Columbus, responsible for I Love You, Beth Cooper, one of the worst films of 2009, doesn't help a middling script with sluggish pacing and his eye-rolling soundtrack picks — Highway to Hell, Mama Told Me Not to Come, and when the kids reach Vegas, a certain Lady Gaga hit warbles up in the casino.
For what it is and for whom it is intended, it's not a bad movie, just an indifferent one. Like too many "New Harry Potters" including The Golden Compass and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, this one answers the question, "Why not see Percy this weekend" with "Why see Percy this weekend?" And that's no answer at all.