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Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Fox // PG // June 29, 2010
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 3, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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It's a Harry Potter knockoff without any of the...well, any of the magic.

I'm not exactly revealing a closely guarded secret when I say that Fox wants to dig its claws into its own family-friendly fantasy franchise. Why wouldn't they? Without even taking DVD, Blu-ray, or merchandising into account, the Harry Potter flicks have raked in billions at the box office worldwide. Fox's opening salvo, Eragon, sputtered when it limped into theaters a few years back, so the studio kept thumbing its way through the Young Adult shelf at Books-A-Million until it landed on Percy Jackson. I have to admit to never having cracked open any of the books -- although I've heard absolutely nothing but good things -- but just taking Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as a movie, it's a blatantly shameless stab at cashing in on the Harry Potter juggernaut. The broad strokes of the setup are certainly the same: a young boy with endless troubles at school and a miserable life at home learns of his immensely powerful bloodline, he's quickly scuttled off to a schoolcamp where noticeably-less-gifted mystical children are training to hone their talents, and...heck, Not-Hogwarts even has its own distinctive game, only instead of Quidditch, it's a take on Capture the Flag with very, very sharp swords. Our Chosen One hero type pals around with a doggedly loyal comic relief-ish sidekick and a plucky, studious young girl, and they soon dart off together to combat a world-ravaging threat the school...err, I mean, the camp's teachers could never hope to overcome themselves. Sure, a lot of those concepts you'll spot in most any Young Hero Adventure, J.K. Rowling or otherwise, but Fox brought on Chris Columbus -- the director behind the first two Potter flicks -- and even aped the distinctive Harry Potter font for The Lightning Thief's poster art. It's really transparent what Fox is trying to do, but that'd all be forgiveable if they did it well. As it turns out, though...? Not really.

It's a mashup between Harry Potter and Clash of the Titans, really. Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) has had it rough pretty much his entire life. He never knew his real dad. Through no fault of his own, he's struggling to keep up in school. His mom's shacked up with a repulsive, booze-swilling loudmouth. You'd think a school field trip to a history museum would at least be a welcomed break from all that, but being attacked by a winged fury in some musty backroom and standing accused of pilfering Zeus' mighty lightning bolt...? Frying pan. Fire. That whole deal. See, it turns out that Percy's the son of Poseidon, and he's been framed for a theft that threatens to spark a war between the gods that could level the little blue mudball we call home in the process. Just as the clock starts to tick down, Percy's mom gets dragged down to Hades. Heaven and Hell both want to get their clutches on Zeus' bolt, the most powerful weapon in existence. Percy can either trot up to Olympus to explain himself to Zeus and hope for the best, he could try to figure out who it was that really swiped the bolt, or he could catch a Greyhound bus to the Underworld to rescue his mom. The fate of the world may be resting in the balance, but you guessed it: Percy wants to put all that on hold to mount a rescue mission for Momma. He may not have a grasp on his powers and only has a couple hours of training under his belt, but...hey! He's the son of Poseidon -- one of the Big Three! -- so he'll get a grasp on all that soon enough. He's not going it alone either, backed by Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the sword-slinging daughter of Athena, and his best friend-slash-secret protector, a satyr named Grover (Brandon T. Jackson). Hey, and our hero's named after Perseus, and he has it every bit as rough as his namesake, squaring off along the way against Medusa, a hydra, an oversized minotaur, and...gulp!...the fury of the gods themselves.

I didn't grab a copy of The Lightning Thief just so I could churn out some sort of snarky review. I was a rabid Greek mythology nut growing up, I'd be pointing to The Incredible Hercules as by far my favorite monthly comic if it were still around, and more than a couple of people whose opinions I've come to respect tell me the books that inspired the film are clever and deliriously fun. I strolled in hoping to like The Lightning Thief, and instead I walked out with an "it's okay, I guess" and a shrug. The movie just stumbles around at most every turn. Logan Lerman is a decent enough presence
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in the lead, but he seems to spend most of the two hour runtime with his jaw dropped, as if he's just about to moan "wwwwwwwwwwwhoa!" at whatever CGI spectacle has just reared its head. He really struggles with some of the dialogue early on, but who could make a line like "Grrrr! I think my dyslexia's getting worse! ...and don't get me started on my ADHD!" sound convincing? (I'm paraphrasing there, but I double-pinky-swear it's something equally terrible.) There's just nothing about Percy -- the character or the performance behind him -- that really draws me in. Brandon T. Jackson can be kind of grating as the horndog best friend who's been secretly protecting Percy for years on end. Supposedly Grover is a meeker, less confident character in the original books, but Jackson opts to draw him instead as a loud, boorish cliché that happens to have goat legs. Alexandra Daddario makes the biggest impression of the three leads as the cunning warrior-princess Annabeth. She doesn't settle into the part immediately -- again, with clunky dialogue like "I know I have strong feelings for you, but I haven't figured out if they're positive or negative", who could? -- but there's a charisma that quickly shines through. ...or maybe I'm just a cheap date when it comes to a pretty girl blasting arrows into a hydra or singlehandedly taking on a half-battalion of warriors with a sword. The Lightning Thief has a phenomenal assortment of talent in the supporting cast -- Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Catherine Keener, Joey Pants, Steve Coogan, and Rosario Dawson -- although most of them do approach it like they're performing at a children's playhouse. The movie doesn't give any of them much to do, and there's an unfortunate feeling that too many of them are playing down to the audience.

The Lightning Thief tries its darndest to keep the adrenaline pumping, settling into a rhythm of at least one big action sequence every ten minutes. Some of these wind up feeling flat and routine, such as the first attack with the demonic Fury in the museum. The movie tries to tack a modern twist onto Medusa chasing Percy around a labyrinth of the statues of her victims, but it plays like a blurry carbon copy of what was done so more effectively in the original Clash of the Titans. Here, there's no energy to propel it just feels like The Lightning Thief is disinterestedly working its way down a checklist. "Okay, there's Medusa. Done. Next?" Very little in the movie registers or resonates. Heck, even when Percy's mother is seemingly killed right before his eyes, he doesn't seem particularly shaken up. If he doesn't care, why should I? He has so little reaction that when it's revealed that the rest of the movie will revolve around getting Mom back, Percy's declaration just doesn't ring true at all.

A few sequences
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do manage to stand out, though. One of The Lightning Thief's biggest setpieces traps our three intrepid heroes in a Vegas casino where they're seduced into completely forgetting about their quest, complete with trippy, magic-laced hors d'oeuvres. Maybe I bought into that because I found the whole journey up to that point so forgettable myself, but it really is one of the more energetic and inspired scenes in the film, especially the brawls that break out as Percy, Grover, and Annabeth make a beeline for the exit. I seemed to find myself more drawn to the sequences that don't revolve around massive amounts of CGI, for whatever reason, and another one of my favorite moments pits Annabeth against Percy on the battlefield at Camp Half-Blood. Even though it comes fairly early in the movie -- these are clearly two of the leads, and we know neither of 'em will wind up being mauled or murdered -- it still feels like there are stakes. It doesn't pull its punches, and the fight choreography is first-rate. As far as the best effects sequence...well, let's just say it involves a sword, flying shoes, and a fire-breathing, five-headed hydra. Why couldn't more of the movie be like this?

Part of the problem is that The Lightning Thief is such a blatant effort at kickstarting a franchise that the whole thing feels cold and calculated. There's never the sense that I'm watching something unique or distinctive...just a few fairly uninteresting characters on a routine quest I really couldn't care less about. It's infused with so little energy that even with another action sequence reliably popping up every eight to twelve minutes, this two hour adventure feels as if it drags on a lot longer than that. This is a movie with endlessly ambitious visual effects, but they're so obviously computer-generated that it's hard to get swept up in the spectacle of it all. They're detailed models and have been lovingly rendered, sure, but they're not photorealistic, and there's surprisingly little effort at making them blend in. The compositing work looks like Colorforms half the time, and you'll notice that the snakes in Medusa's hair hardly ever seem to cast shadows. They're just floating apart from the rest of this world. The CG wizardry as a whole feels as if it's at least five years behind the curve.

Don't get me wrong: The Lightning Thief is completely watchable. I wouldn't try to talk someone out of giving it a spin, which is more than I can say for some of Chris Columbus' other flicks, but that's about as high as the praise gets this time around. Almost unrelentingly bland, unengaging, and instantly forgettable, The Lightning Thief is a shameless grab for cash...a paint-by-numbers attempt to try and coast on the colossal success of Harry Potter. It's too distracted trying to spawn another multibillion dollar fantasy franchise to bother with a voice or personality all its own. If your kids are pestering you to pick up a copy anyway, and they just won't settle for an armful of Rick Riordan's original books, my vote would be to Rent It.

I'd kind of expect a $100 million visual effects spectacle to dazzle more than this in high-def.

It's not that this Blu-ray disc looks
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bad or anything, but it's definitely erratic. The Lightning Thief's scope photography looks surprisingly muddy and hazy under low light...contrast flattens out in the dark, and quite a bit of the clarity and detail is wiped away. Even in sunnier, more brightly lit sequences, the presence of fine detail can still be underwhelming when the camera eases back. It really can vary dramatically from one scene to the next. Color saturation tends to be pretty bland as well. Sure, the extended sequence in Vegas is bright and candy-colored, but that's about the extent of it. The palette frequently leans somewhat towards a burnt orange, a stale trick that gets used so frequently in movies anymore than it leaves The Lightning Thief looking pretty undistinguished visually. The flick prefers to skulk around at night and in dark interiors, and that obviously limits how much its palette can realistically pop. A hefty chunk of the third act of the film is bleak and desaturated too. It's not close to the sort of eye candy I waltzed in expecting to see. I'll also admit to being kind of surprised to spot 35mm cameras popping up in the extras. There's really not a filmic texture to The Lightning Thief at all, and I just assumed it had been shot digitally. Turns out that's not the case at all. The image has a processed look to it -- not in the sense of heavy-handed digital noise reduction or filtering, but more because this is the approach the digital wizards took when melding the sheer volume of CGI and digital compositing in with the filmed imagery. Saying that it's really artificial looking might be the best way to describe it. I'm sure all of that's just a factor of the way the movie was produced and that it likely looked much the same theatrically.

There's never any doubt that I'm watching a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc, and it's leagues above the DVD also packaged in this set, but The Lightning Thief still falls below average for a day-and-date blockbuster on Blu-ray. On the upside, its AVC encode has plenty of room to stretch on this BD-50 disc, and the compression never once sputters or stutters. The film has been letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

The Lightning Thief may awkwardly stumble around an awful lot in just about every conceivable way, but at least its soundtrack stands on the brink of perfection. This 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack really is fantastic, and its sound design takes full advantage of all of the speakers at its fingertips. Even some of the understated sequences early on boast a strong sense of stereo separation. Take a couple of squabbling kids in a hallway flinging each other into lockers on opposite sides of the screen...the mix smoothly pans back and forth to match their movement all the way. It kind of goes without saying that the sound design is far more aggressive when the higher-octane action really kicks in...this is a flick with a hydra and a towering minotaur on the bill, after all. It's a spry and consistently immersive mix littered with a slew of incendiary surround effects, from Percy playing baseball with lightning bolts all the way to a gaggle of Medusa's statues tumbling over like dominoes. Bass response is thunderous as well. There's a consistently thumping low-end in Vegas, natch, and the scale and scope of the battle sequences coax all sorts of throaty roars from the subwoofer. Even with as massive as the action can get, though, The Lightning Thief's dialogue never struggles to find its place in the mix. It's consistently clean and flawlessly balanced from start to finish. I really can't come up with anything to gripe about at all...this is just a first-rate lossless soundtrack.

Also belted out here are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Fox has included a descriptive audio track as well alongside subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish, Portuguese, and two Eastern languages whose characters I don't really know how to decipher.

There are a fair number of bullet points scattered around here, sure, but most of these extras are really short and insubstantial.
  • Deleted Scenes (14 min.; HD): This reel of deleted scenes clocks in at 14 minutes in length, and there are 10 scenes in all, so it kind of goes without saying that each snippet tends to be pretty short. Kronos gets a brief mention in the first of 'em during a mythological infodump, Annabeth scores a different introduction, and there's a good bit more brawling, running, and...why not?...even some additional
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    dancing to top it all off. A lot of this is either an unnecessary tag to an existing scene, exposition that doesn't accomplish anything, or just repetitive. All of this was wisely cut out, and The Lightning Thief could've stood to be trimmed even further, really. Still nice to have all of this footage on Blu-ray, especially with fully-rendered CGI and in high definition. Strangely, despite that sort of visual polish, there isn't any color correction in place, and the contrast doesn't really match the finished look of the film either.

  • The Book Comes to Life (4 min.; HD): Rick Riordan, the immediately charming creator of the Percy Jackson series, speaks briefly about what inspired him to write these books and how much of a thrill it is to see his characters come to life on the silver screen. He also touches on how gradual the success of the series was in print and how deep an influence Greek mythology continues to have on pop culture.

  • Inside Camp Half-Blood (5 min.; HD): This is the closest The Lightning Thief comes to a traditional making-of featurette, focusing intensely on Camp Half-Blood rather than the production as a whole. The young cast's extensive stunt and sword training is tackled here, and it's also pointed out how the legion of teenaged demigods in the background is littered with gymnasts and other assorted athletes. A good bit of time is spent on the design of Half-Blood itself, striking a balance between a traditional summer camp and classic Greek architecture.

  • On Set with Brandon T. Jackson (6 min.; HD): There really isn't much of a guided tour of the sets or's just Jackson excitedly and pretty obnoxiously darting around, showing off his trailer, hugging his co-stars, and shouting really loudly.

  • Meet the Demigods (4 min.; HD): This other featurette is every bit as pointless, echoing what's already spelled out in the movie for a light, fluffy promo piece. It's meant for people who haven't gotten around to watching The Lightning Thief, and there's zero insight for anyone who's already given it a spin.

  • Composing for the Gods: A Conversation with Christophe Beck (3 min.; SD): Strangely, the last of the featurettes is the only standard definition extra to be found anywhere on this disc. It's by far the most inspired and thoughtful, though, as composer Christophe Beck delves into the themes,
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    melodies, and instrumentation he used to sell the scope and grandeur expected out of a Greek god-inspired fantasy.

  • Secrets of the Gods (HD): The mildly interactive feature "Secrets of the Gods" lets users navigate through the halls of Olympus to dig up more dirt on the gods, demigods, and creatures featured throughout The Lightning Thief. It's just an interface to spawn 12 different high-def clips -- mostly just excerpts from the film, although there is a smattering of artwork and even a 3D model too -- with some narration to spell out who these beings are and what they can do. It's worth noting that the narration does delve more deeply into these characters than what's showcased in The Lightning Thief.

  • Discover Your Powers Quiz (HD): Hey, ever wonder if you might be a demigod? This quiz lobs out five random questions -- they really are very different every time you play -- and afterwards Brandon T. Jackson fills you in on which deity is probably your proud poppa. The answers I got...Poseidon and Hermes...didn't really seem to jive with my responses at all, but whatever.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last up to the plate is a theatrical trailer.

The Lightning Thief is a BD Live-enabled disc, and there is one extra that's exclusively available online: "Demigods & Work and Play: Inside the Lotus Lord Casino". This short making-of featurette focuses on one of the movie's standout setpieces and clocks in just over two and a half minutes. It can either be streamed or downloaded at a higher quality, but unless you're really looking to pal around more with the cast, it's really not worth hopping online to's just a few of the actors marveling at how amazing the casino set is and how they're all bestest-friends-forever.

This package also includes two other discs: a DVD and a digital copy disc. The digital copy is exclusively for use in iTunes, so the PSP and Zune crowds are out of luck this time around. Tacked onto the cover is a code to download a preview of the graphic novel adaptation of The Lightning Thief. It's not really worth the trouble, watermarked and limited to just a few very low-resolution pages.

The Final Word
Several of my friends are frothing-at-the-mouth fanatics of the Percy Jackson series in print, and although I've never cracked open any of the books myself, I'll give 'em the benefit of the doubt that they're every bit as clever and infectiously fun as I hear they are. Having been such a Greek mythology nut as a kid, I really do want to like this adaptation, but Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a hollow effects spectacle...a shameless attempt at kickstarting a Harry Potterish fantasy film franchise rather than trying to be any good on its own. There's none of the...well, magic of the Potters here -- none of that energy, none of that charm, very little of its imagination -- and what's left is kind of an indifferent shrug. Like a big chunk of Christopher Columbus' filmography, The Lightning Thief is just slow, uninvolving, and disappointingly routine. It's not a bad movie by any stretch, but The Lightning Thief is just too mediocre to really recommend. Stick with the books instead or just Rent It.
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