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There is a scent of mild panic in the air around Hollywood. The bonanza known as the Harry Potter series is coming to an end and with it goes one of the few viable and wildly successful recent family film franchises.  The series has dominated the box-office since its first film in 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and shows no sign of slacking as it heads into the final chapter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which has been obligingly stretched into two parts, thus keeping the dream alive - and the money rolling in - a little bit longer.  Still, where is the next contender for the Harry Potter crown?  The search for a replacement has led to some interesting failures like Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events and the tragic botching of Philip Pullman’s brilliant The Golden Compass.  Who better then to turn to in this time of need than the man who started the ball rolling?

Director Chris Columbus spearheaded Harry Potter’s transition from wildly successful children’s books to wildly successful movie adaptations.  Wouldn’t it be natural to assume that knew a thing or two about doing the same for another popular instance of kiddie-lit?  Columbus’ adaptation of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief certainly sounds like a prime candidate for the next big family film king; a troubled New York schoolboy discovers that he is the love child of the Greek god Poseidon after being accused of stealing the lightning bolt weapon belonging to the father of the gods (and his uncle), Zeus.  Percy discovers what being the son of a Greek god means as he and his best friend, Grover – a satyr and Percy’s protector in disguise - and Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, mount a quest to retrieve the bolt and find the true lightning thief before a war between the gods catches humanity in the middle.  Great, a modern-day story that mixes the magic of Greek mythology, I’m on board.

Unfortunately, the sinking feeling I had upon realising that Columbus was indeed directing this film was, as usual, correct.  Columbus’ mishandling of The Lightning Thief only validates what I’d thought; his success with the first two Harry Potter films {- the second being 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets} was a fluke.  They were absolutely fool-proof (- or in this case, Columbus-proof) properties that no amount of terrible direction could spoil.  Not so with The Lightning Thief, where there’s less of the overwhelming magic and stunning visuals of J.K. Rowling’s world that hid what an awful filmmaker Columbus is.  If one looks at the progress of the main trio of child actors in the first two Potter films, they are consistently terrible, overacting and mugging willy-nilly.  Luckily for Columbus, his refusal to get solid performances out of his child actors was smothered by the amazing production design and fantastic effects that were required for that series.  I couldn’t say why but Columbus infantilises everything in his grasp, dumbing down all aspects of his films (- ostensibly for the sake of the children in the audience, who really are much more together than he thinks) and hoping the strength of the material carries him through.  So it goes with The Lightning Thief, Columbus clips along, giving no depth to any of his characters and outside of one or two CGI instances, making darn sure the action never gets intense enough to be too scary.  When the parent of a character is believed to have been murdered right before that person’s eyes, there’s not a tear in sight or a moment of grief or anger shown, and even so, according to the few moments the incident is mentioned in the script that parent isn’t actually dead; they’re only “gone”.  Feh. 

With The Lightning Thief, Columbus rather egregious not only doesn’t shy away from Harry Potter comparisons, but seems to embrace them; placing the unfortunately named Camp Half Blood, where young demigods like Percy, i.e. love children of mortals and Olympians go to harness their Greek-god given powers and learn to battle. (Why do they battle and battle with real swords and armour, I don’t know and like so many things in the film is not explained.)  The camp itself looks like a sad outpost somewhere on the Hogwarts grounds and the similarity of a coed camp to Harry Potter’s well-known boarding school are unmissable.  So is the venerated treatment Percy gets; being a legend before he ever knew his own origins and treated like such by all the other campgoers.  Not having read the books, I don’t know if it feels this samey to begin with, but in Columbus’ hands there’s no finesse or dressing it up to feel other than glaring déjà vu.  Even the modern poppy trappings of one of the camp member’s high tech video game and computer layout, nor an overlong indulgent trip to Las Vegas on Percy’s quest to clear his name make any difference.  Even the CGI effects look like leftovers from the Potter pool; a hydra brings to mind The Chamber of Secret’s Basilisk times five, Percy’s flying Chuck Taylors seem to have borrowed its delicate wings from Harry’s Quidditch snitch, while other effects look dated and cheap, like something out of a late nineties’ video game.

Sadly similar is the wildly uneven acting that signifies any Columbus venture with a young cast.  He has the benefit of Logan Lerman, who deftly played a young George Hamilton in My One and Only last year, as Percy.  Despite a shallow script that always has one eye on the clock (- except when it hasn’t, then time stops dead) sacrificing action set pieces and exposition for any range or depth of character, Lerman does the best he can with what was probably no direction at all, but the weight of everything that’s wrong with this wildly uneven mess is too much for the young man.  The only spark of life comes from Brandon T. Jackson, who was such fun in last year’s Tropic Thunder as Percy’s half-goat pal, Grover.  Jackson throws every adlib he can at the screen, occasionally hitting, but the barrage of his attempts to hold up whatever momentum isn’t there can be annoying.  The Lightning Thief boasts a ton of cameos from amazing actors who should really have known better, but were probably fooled by Columbus’ Harry Potter fluke.  I’m guessing that Columbus guiltied Pierce Brosnan into appearing as a curly-tressed centaur by reminding him how much money Mrs. Doubtfire inexplicably made.  The sight of Kevin McKidd once again in short skirted ancient garb, as in his days on the HBO series Rome, could never give me any pain, however watching him try to wring some depth out of the flyweight script and Columbus’ meager directing skills is pitiful.  This is the same sad circumstance for top actors like Sean Bean, Catherine Keener and Joe Pantoliano.  The only ones who seem to be having any fun are Uma Thurman, camping the Tartarus out of her Medusa, and Rosario Dawson as Persephone, the long-suffering kidnapped bride of buffoonish underworld god Hades (- played by an eerily Tim Burton-esque Steve Coogan), who relieves with her misery in creative and sexy ways.  Neither is nearly enough to make anyone forget the mess this film is.  For something that seems as workman-like and pacing-obsessed as The Lightning Thief is, my only marvel is how the film feels like it goes on forever.

As may have perhaps been Columbus’ intent, only the very smallest in your pantheon will be fooled or amused by the crass ineptitude and lost potential of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Feb. 11th, 2010

 

 

 

© 2006-2014 The Diva Review.com

 

 

 

Photos

(Courtesy of  20th Century Fox Films)

 

 

 

 

 

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