13 February 2010

The Philosopher's Clone?

With Warner Bros having split the last Harry Potter book into two films, a move that has cynics decrying their money grubbing, the search for the series' successor is very much on. Arguably, it's been on ever since Philosopher's Stone grossed $974m worldwide, but the likes of Eragon and Cirque du Freak have failed to launch audience grabbing franchises just the same as more worthy efforts like The Golden Compass or Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Enter Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, a film based, as ever, on "the best-selling books".

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief finds the eponymous teenager discovering he's the son of Poseidon, an uncomfortable and transcendental truth that his mother never really mentioned before. Percy's also thrown by the sudden revelation that his best friend Grover is a satyr appointed to protect him, his paralysed history teacher is a centaur, and that everyone from Mount Olympus to the Underworld thinks he's stolen Zeus' lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon ever created. With Zeus on the warpath and Hades wanting the bolt's power for himself, Percy and his friends must find the real Lightning Thief in order to rescue his mother from the Underworld and prevent a war that would consume the Earth.

Way before Harry Potter, Chris Columbus wrote a film called Young Sherlock Holmes, wherein two boys and a girl investigated a mystery at the boarding school they attended, befriending a beardy bloke and fighting off an enemy that threatens to destabilise the balance of their world. Of course Percy Jackson isn't Young Sherlock Holmes, but you can't help but notice that between these two films and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chris Columbus is making a killing off of the same film over and over again. As much as I love Harry Potter, I'd never claim that it has the most original story structure ever, because if this is mining anything, it's Greek mythology. We're due a decent Greek mythology film, and for some that will be next month's remake of Clash of the Titans, but for the family audience, it's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

In terms of the narrative, I suspect something has been lost from the books. While I generally have no problem with a film carving out its own structure to make it a different beast from the source material, and indeed I usually prefer that, the film suffers for the same stumbling reverence that Columbus brought to the first two Harry Potter films. Big idea-laden sequences unfold around every ten minutes, invariably with big action beats, but it's the bits in between where the film suffers. For instance, Percy's mother is kidnapped very early on, but for a good ten minutes after that sequence, Percy believes that she's dead. Not that you'd know it, given the utter lack of emotion he expresses at this bereavement. It's not that the reasonably likable Logan Lerman is poor in the central role, it's that the script doesn't really seem to provide any real grief for Percy.

As predictable as it is that Percy's mother isn't actually dead, you'll also be able to tell who the Lightning Thief is about five minutes after that character makes his debut. This makes the third act plod along rather than throw up anything of real interest, with the exception of some scenery chewing by Rosario Dawson's Persephone and Steve Coogan's Hades. These two in particular are the standouts amongst the adult cast, with Pierce Brosnan making a fairly thankless appearance and Sean Bean just snarling every now and then but not really conveying any threat. Brandon T. Jackson and Alexandra Daddario make pretty undeveloped Ron and Hermione substitutes, and the calibre of Logan Lerman's performance doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. This film dissuaded me from the notion that he should be the new Spider-Man, as rumoured, though I maintain new Spider-Man is a shit idea anyway.

Oh, and the product placement in this film is awful. An iPhone is used to defeat a monster. Percy wears flying hi-top All Star Converses. A trip to the Underworld is accompanied by AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and a trip to Vegas by Lady GaGa's "Pokerface". And I think that's symptomatic of the problem with Percy Jackson. Did the young Sherlock Holmes wear Adidas while fighting Moriarty? Did Harry Potter pour Coca Cola on the flaming tail of a Blast-Ended Skrewt? No, because they were both quintessentially British, and somehow a transplant to America fills a film like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief with brash sequences set in Vegas, or shameless advertising. The fantasy genre does work best when set against normality, but somehow there's a heightened sense of things when you make an American film that draws you out of it. Yes, I'm really saying that Medusa is less believable when she's ogling Apple products, because she is.

You know, I'm complaining about the crass stuff a lot- who produced this anyhow? Ah yes, 20th Century Fox. I mentioned The Golden Compass as a worthy fantasy adaptation above, but one which never went beyond the first of the three planned films because it didn't make enough money at the box office. This was due in no small part to the broad campaign against the atheistic content of the source material in America, spearheaded by Fox News. Fox, who coincidentally had another big family flick called Shit Chipmunk Film in cinemas at the same time, accused the film makers' December 2007 release as "a war on Christmas", a phrase coined by the network's arch-twatbag and pundit from hell, Bill O'Reilly. If The Golden Compass was anti-Christian, then why is Rupert Murdoch's company releasing a film that presents polytheism and ancient religion, except to cash in on the trend they think is so evil?

Fox is currently riding high off the astronomical gross of Avatar, which probably recouped their losses on all the shite they've put out in the last few years. But all of this is quite separate from the film at hand, and I apologise, but their bullshit is not considered often enough. On balance, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is more than the bastion of Darth Murdoch's evil empire. It's not nearly as derivative or pointless as it's being painted and actually zips along for the most part. And the film has its merits too- there are some interesting ideas about old, and I mean very very old concepts, there's another nice performance by Catherine Keener, and there's a decent music score from the usually uninspired and hackneyed Christophe Beck. Moreover, the production design is very strong and the film looks more unique than it probably is.

The kids in the screening I attended seemed to love it, so it has to get a pass. It drags a bit on account of Chris Columbus' erratic pacing and close adherence to set pieces from the book, but the kids in the screening enjoyed it. If you want to watch "the next Harry Potter", you'll be waiting until November, when the first Deathly Hallows film comes out. If you want to see an entertaining family film, you could really do worse than Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, because brashness aside, it's actually quite diverting fantasy fun for half-term. And it's not as bad as Eragon, which was a relief, so you can probably expect to see the next film, The Sea of Monsters in cinemas sometime next year.


Hand-drawn animation is making a bit of a comeback on the big-screen this half-term, between Disney's The Princess and the Frog and Studio Ghibli's Ponyo. Both will be reviewed in the next post, but in the meantime, if you see Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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