|THOSE DARNED GODS GET INTO EVERYTHING|
J. K. Rowling really started something, and what she started is a Gold Rush.
Queen Elizabeth II used to be the World's Richest Woman. Then Oprah pulled past Betty Windsor, and not long after that the creator of the Boy Who Lived left Oprah in the dust.
As soon as Jo Rowling was named WRW, everybody started to get ideas. Maybe I can't be Queen of England, people thought, but I can write something like the Harry Potter books. How hard can it be?
Unfortunately it can be very, very hard, and you probably can't do it. But that doesn't keep writers from trying, or publishers from publishing their efforts. And especially, it doesn't keep Hollywood producers from desperately searching for the next fantasy film franchise, now that Harry Potter's end is in sight.
After the Lemony Snicket, Golden Compass, and Spiderwick movies proved non-starters, after a serious stumble in the Narnia series, and after much critical disdain for the second Twilight movie, 20th Century Fox has come out swinging with a high-budget take on the first volume in Rick Riordan's Olympians series, “The Lightning Thief.”
Riordan's series of five volumes and four marketing spin-offs concerns the Olympians, the gods of ancient Greece, and their well-known predilection for siring children on mortal women. The resulting kids are classed as demigods, and include Percy Jackson, titular hero.
When we join Percy he has yet to find out that he's the son of Poseidon (though he enjoys sitting at the bottom of the pool for seven minutes at a time). He has yet to discover that his apparent dyslexia stems from his brain being hard-wired to read ancient Greek, and that his ADHD is merely the manifestation of his natural battle reflexes. (This should make legions of dyslexic kids feel better, until they're faced with a passage from Anaxagoras.)
So naturally Percy is distressed when a dog-bodied, bat-winged Fury accuses him of stealing Zeus's lightning bolt. The theft will lead to a war in heaven that will, naturally, destroy Earth, and coincidentally leave Percy's mother in the clutches of Hades unless he finds the bolt, returns it to Zeus, and unmasks the real thief.
Riordan's books have enjoyed great, if not Potterish success, so Fox hired Chris Columbus to direct “The Lightning Thief,” hoping for lightning to strike twice. Columbus, of course, directed the first two Harry Potter movies, and Fox executives apparently forgot that “Sorcerer's Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” were the two most plodding, literal-minded flicks of the series.
Not having read the books I can't say how faithful Columbus has been to Riordan's story, but the movie certainly has the feel of an earnest effort to get from one plot point to the next without confusing anyone. Along the way there are some diverting moments, as there were in “Sorcerer's Stone,” mostly due to some clever casting.
Sean Bean as Zeus, Kevin McKidd as Poseidon, and Melina Kanakaredes (heavens, a real Greek!) as Athena look wonderful, but hardly get enough screen time to matter. On the other hand, Uma Thurman as Medusa is a hoot as she chews up the scenery, and turns most of it to stone. “C'mon, sneak a peek,” she coos. (This is not Thurman's first excursion into classical mythology; she was Venus in Terry Gilliam's madly entertaining “Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” where I assure you she is worth the price of a rental.)
I hold no flinty opinion when authors or directors fool around with mythology, which can itself be rather fluid. The great Ray Harryhausen pulled lots of tricks with the pantheon in his classic “Clash of the Titans,” which is due for a remake this year. But just for the record, here are a few Olympian missteps:
Medusa was killed by Perseus, who used her head as a weapon, as the kids do here because she has evidently been resurrected as the owner of an antiques store. Actually, Medusa was the only mortal Gorgon; her sisters, Stheno and Euryale, are probably still around at another antiques store, probably in Camden or Searsport.
The Hydra, which attacks Percy and his friends at the Parthenon in Nashville (the building is actually there) is shown as a fire-breathing dragon, when it was actually a water monster. The name Hydra means water, for heaven's sake.
And here's a favorite: Percy's best friend and protector is Grover, who is a satyr. But Grover is a goat from the waist down, confusing him with the fauns, as the Romans later did. Satyrs were horse-tailed human-footed followers of Dionysos, and were perpetually drunk and perpetually, um, aroused. In fact you wouldn't want to have any ancient Greek paintings of satyrs around when the preacher's wife comes to tea, because they're usually shown balancing wine cups on their, er, tumescences.
The kids in the major roles do pretty well. Brandon T Jackson as Grover the Satyr is saddled with most of the modern hip dialogue, but he delivers it fairly inoffensively. Alexandra Daddario is the comely daughter of Athena, who just manages not to kiss Percy, maintaining the PG rating. And Logan Lerman as the eponymous hero is genial, charming, and not a bad actor, though he's about 17 now instead of 12, so when the series ends (assuming it goes any farther) he'll be 21 instead of 16, and ready for some grown-up amorous connections
PS – There's a stinger in the closing credits, but you won't have to wait around long – it's barely 60 seconds in.