PG? Straight-up PG? This is shocking me right now. (So much so that I can't write "I'm shocked" and instead sound like a robot.) I mean, I agree. This is the definition of '80s PG. It's got peril. The bad guys look super-duper scary. I'm sure there's some real mild language in here. They go to a casino? That can't be good for kids. There's a bit of innuendo, especially concentrated at one moment in the film. Straight up innocent people die on screen. There's a beheading. But, again, I'm cool with this mostly being PG. I mean, I'm glad I didn't take my kid to an IMAX showing of this because he'd be terrified. But at home, where he's allowed to leave the room if he's scared? Perfect.
DIRECTOR: Chris Columbus
I'm plagued by having two conceits on how this essay should go. I'm probably going to talk about both, so I'll just let this whole thing be metatextual and let you know how the sausage is made. My original hook was going to be along the lines of "Never has a movie been more blessed by having lowered to no expectations." It does the job. I'm going to be talking about that, so yay for me. But I also want to stress, "My goodness, Percy Jackson oh so desperately want to be Harry Potter." I think I can probably even link the two conceits together. Do you know why? It's because I'm an expert storyteller. (I don't need your comments right now, Karen.)
Everyone told me this movie was terrible. Like, everyone. I think this is one of those taboo movies to like. There are fandoms out there that get way bigger than their source material. While Percy Jackson and the Rick Riordan universe aren't on Harry Potter levels, they do pull in quite the crowd. While I'm sure that there is a fandom name for the Percy Jackson universe, I'm going to irresponsibly lump in all of YA fans into one grouping. I am not a YA fan. I'm an English teacher and love when students get into YA. People are always shocked that, as an English teacher, I'm not a huge YA guy. I want to put something into perspective. Do you notice this blog? It involves me watching a movie every day and then writing a long, long post about it. I do this on the daily. I also run / bike for an hour a day, read a lot of comic books, watch a lot of TV, try playing games, and genuinely love other literature. I have a stack of books that are mocking me for not getting to them. I've dabbled in some YA. I've read the seven Harry Potter novels and, shockingly, only thought they were okay. As a Lenten commitment while I was teaching junior high, I forced myself to read the Twilight books and wanted to bore my eyes out. YA is hard to keep up with. YA tends to release a lot of a series. Even though they are quick reads, there are a million of them. That leaves me outside of the conversation when it comes to YA. I'm not saying don't be a YA fan. Please, YA fans are amazing and I will always support fandom. I'm just saying that I'm not one of them.
My daughter, however, is. She's a huge fan of Riordan's universe. Oddly, she seems to like it more than the Harry Potter books. Seriously, the only book that Olivia has left to read from Harry Potter is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That's it. How do you stop there? She even is a Harry Potter fan. But she keeps reading and re-reading the Percy Jackson books. So when we saw that the first Percy Jackson was on Disney+ and it was her family movie night pick, we all kind of agreed. Part of me was curious. How bad could this movie be to get such vitriol. And that's when I understood that it was all a fandom thing.
I asked this question on my school's Facebook social media page. I told everyone that I liked it and I wanted people to argue with me about why I shouldn't like it. The consensus was that "It wasn't the book." I want to poo-poo this, and to a certain extent I will. But I also get the logic of that. I think I had that big complaint about Ready Player One. I'm not even that much of a Ready Player One fan. But I can apply the same logic to other things in the pop culture sphere. I really didn't like the big reveal in "The Timeless Child" episode of Doctor Who. I'm still coming to grips with it because I keep seeing these holes that don't really work in the storytelling. Other Doctor Who fans keep citing that Doctor Who, in its long history, has sucked at maintaining any sense of continuity and that I should just learn to accept it. The same thing probably rings true with Star Trek. For Star Trek, I'm very cool with continuity errors. With Doctor Who, it bugs me. I don't get it, but I do get fans finding the source material very precious. The books are special to people. After waiting to see the source material get adapted, it might be disappointing if major changes are made to the thing you love. I totally get that. There are things that just never made it into the film or were actively changed. That can be a bummer for people. But what it also does is put me into a position of enjoying a movie without any of the strings attached.
For a movie in isolation, The Lightning Thief is kind of fun. I know. I actually like it a lot better than the Harry Potter movies. I get kind of bored in the middle of the Harry Potter films and I know a lot of people kind of just wrote me off. Like I say with YA fans, please continue being a fan of what you like. It's just my opinion and I know that I'm probably wrong about a lot of it. But my absolute zero expectations created something that was remarkably fun. This is a movie that has amazing pacing, fun characters, and just enough information about world building without becoming a slog. I never really got tired of it. It established a very concrete goal and let me know about what the formula was going to be. In fact, in terms of formula, I've rarely seen it work so well than what we see here. I know that it isn't how it goes in the book, but having Percy collect three items in a road trip across America is just the right level of pacing. There's never a moment of "Why are we here? Why do I need to see this?" It all kind of makes sense. The character development happens in the field. Yeah, I'm not advocating for a movie to be all action all the time, but for Percy...it kind of works? Sure, he's got that thing that Rey has where he's just a natural at everything he does. But that's kind of perfect for getting the story up and going.
But as much as I'm gushing about the film right now, I'm not going to say that it is perfect. There are some odd things that are going on and that ties back into my Harry Potter issues. I can't help but make the comparison. I'm sure that everyone else makes the same comparisons, especially the die-hard Potterheads. The idea of getting Chris Columbus to spearhead this movie is the same attitude that brought Joss Whedon to Justice League. I think both movies kind of have the same issue as well. It's stunt directing. The odd thing is that I don't really like Chris Columbus's work with the first two Harry Potter films. It's a bit clumsy at times. Percy Jackson feels really polished. But that's all part of the stunt. It's like the movie is calling out the other franchise every time it gets. If Harry Potter infamously gets half of the British actors out there to show up, Percy Jackson got the rest, plus a lot of American actors. If the director is a stunt decision, the cast is the rest. During the opening credits, I was just marveling over the cast list for this movie. I can't actually believe who was in the film with the hopes that Percy Jackson was going to be as big of a franchise as Harry Potter. It's the same thing that happened with The Chronicles of Narnia with The Lord of the Rings. Banking on another franchise's success probably doesn't have the same weight. Some of this criticism may fall on Riordan. Again, my kid likes Riordan more that Rowling, but she's also eight. Some of those beats are pretty similar. Special kid discovers he's special and goes to magic school / camp? It's got the same bones.
But ultimately, it's a fun movie. There are a lot of shortcuts taken. I can't say I love that. Probably the most noticeable shortcut I could point out is Joe Pantoliano's character. I'm not saying this is on Pantoliano. I'm saying that he's more of an archetype to bring angst to the protagonist more than anything else. But it's definitely a thing. Anyway, these are things that movies do. If Percy's stepdad was so important to the movie, maybe I would be a bit more concerned. But he's not. He's there to get Percy out of the house. He's the Durseys. If everything is a mirror, that's where that character falls. Does it ruin the movie? No.
The final takeaway? I can see why people dislike this movie. Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a precious part of contemporary YA fiction. But for those people just watching a movie, it's actually really fun.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.