Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Kid on the Block: Percy Jackson

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Since Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Hollywood has become the land of multi-book properties. This year's newest incarnation comes in the form of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It definitely follows suit with the long title rule: more words = epic. Hollywood is just going to keep rolling these out. We've got wizards, vampires, werewolves, dragons (even though that's a really hard property to make any money out of in live-action), and now we've got the Greek gods. Sometimes I wish I was astute enough to predict what the next thing will be but I'm sure I'll be doing a big “Oh yeah” for whatever happens to be next.

Percy Jackson is by no means spectacular. Its story is not gripping in the Harry Potter sense but it does tell a light-hearted adventure story about a boy with learning disorders who, upon discovering his father is Poseidon, must rescue his mother after being accused of stealing Zeus' lightning bolt. The film takes its time to get going. My suspension of disbelief did not kick in until the first half hour but when it did, I found myself really enjoying the story. I was expecting to be put off by the idea of Greek gods in present day but the story did not rely too heavily on any previous knowledge of them. The focus remained on the human characters and their roles. It established interest with a rescue story compounded by a specified and limited amount of time.

The unrest that's caused by this theft in the world of the Greek gods is believable but the film fails in putting any sort of weight in the human world. Perhaps the significance was worth being downplayed in favor of other events but, with scenes that tell us the world is in danger, I was left disappointed when the world's rescue comes off as a bonus after Zeus' bolt is returned. Swirling clouds and raging waters are a default modern day option when conveying earthly danger. How about some sinkholes? Earthquakes? Wildfires? Anything that doesn't swirl? These are all small additions that could have visually indicated the significance of Percy's quest.

Logan Lerman's role as a hero was slightly a shock to me. I am more accustomed to his performances as characters with a dramatic edge. In 3:10 to Yuma, he played a kid desperate to help protect his father. In Gamer, he played a hot shot video gamer with a handful of nice arcs. And in My One and Only, he was a curious young artist who was trying to keep his family together. I found his role in Percy more of a Peter Parker type of character but his youth definitely helped sell the idea of his character being in high school. As much as I love Tobey Maguire, Logan Lerman at 18 just sells it better than Tobey at 28.

The Las Vegas scene was completely unexpected and utterly brilliant. Some might view it as a narrative pit stop yet it's helped along with ideas of mystery and indulgence. It held up to the adage I've made that any movie featuring Las Vegas will more than likely be good. Examples: The Hangover, Casino, Vegas Vacation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Ocean's (all except 12). Debauchery amongst youngsters may not be the best message to convey to today's youth but it is a real one and I'm glad this film had the balls to portray it accurately. The scene made me think about the stuff I was doing when my friends and I were 17 and 18 and it made me laugh.

One thing that I definitely did not enjoy is the hint of tokenism in the film. It wasn't at the Song of the South level but it's unmistakeably present in Brandon T. Jackson's Grover Underwood. There will never be an adequate explanation for me, or anyone with common sense, as to why Percy and Annabeth, the white cast leads, speak proper English but Grover, the black lead, says things like “Ohhhh, what's crackin' y'all?” While this did not happen frequently, it happened once; after that first time, I found myself looking for it and finding it. In the year 2010, this is where we're at as far as portraying black characters to children and the rest of the world? I could go on and on about that and in fact, I likely will in a future editorial.

I was largely pleased with the visual effects of the film. I really can't get enough of watching a wound healing. It seriously gives me chills because it looks so realistic. One thing in particular that I was definitely not pleased with is the hair on Grover's goat legs. If it's going to look that fake, I don't know why filmmakers bother when a costume would have been suitable OR they could simply keep his hooves out of frame or at least make the cuts a lot quicker so I'm not completely turned off by CGI hair. The technology is simply not there yet and I wish Hollywood would realize that and stop cheating the shots. The early shot of Poseidon was an early shot that I was bothered by. You would think that someone would have figured out how to make a giant man walking out of the ocean look realistic but no. It was reminiscent of the original Clash of the Titans.

If you're looking for a movie to stand up against the likes of Harry Potter, you will likely be disappointed by Percy Jackson. However, as far as a stand alone, the movie is pretty good. It might have more to offer to kids rather than adults but, as a man-child, the movie was an enjoyable adventure.

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