Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read the book! I debated reading it before I saw the movie but ultimately saw the movie first. I did however read up on Percy and his friends on Wikipedia prior to viewing.
In retrospect, some will probably call this movie review too harsh – even scathing – but there are some serious problems with this movie. Here’s your sound byte:
I rate it a D- so keep the tweens at home. The next Harry Potter this ain’t.
In a post called Defining Good Writing, children’s book editor Cheryl Klein identifies 5 qualities to judge good writing. I have modified these qualities for reviewing this movie. My scoring scale comes from the standard 7-point scale commonly used at many schools. An A+ is a perfect 100 while a D- is a lowly, barely passing 70.
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Where to begin?
So many things came to my mind when digesting this movie that it’s hard to know what to talk about first. So, I thought I’d mention what I liked about the movie:
- Pierce Brosnan is in it! 😀
- The acting isn’t at all bad though Percy’s ADHD could use a little toning down at times. Uma Thurman as Medusa is especially good.
- Rick Riordan, the creator of the series, has followed the more-or-less standard movie plot pattern so there are no truly gargantuan problems – glaring, yes, but not gargantuan.
- Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth and her feisty relationship with Percy are both quite satisfying – even bringing smiles to my face.
- The special effects are all at least good and some are great. The Hydra battle is awesome!
- It’s very satisfying watching Percy use his new-found water powers.
- It;s great seeing the greek myths we all studied in school come alive in a modern setting.
So, what didn’t I like about this movie?
Unfortunately, the answer is just about everything else. This is a teen flick: it portrays teenagers, teen relationships, teen idiosyncrasies, and teen clichés. In short, teens will identify with and love it, but probably only they will love it. Every important moment and every decision that the main characters make comes either from or out of a purely juvenile perspective. Teens will flock to this movie but I predict it will not have long-term staying power. This film is not destined to become a classic. In general, the plot is weak and the characters are flat.
Honestly, having not read the book yet makes me wonder if the book Percy is younger and the powers that be chose an older teen for the movie role… Yup, Wikipedia confirms that Percy as written is supposed to be 12. Logan Lerman, the actor who portrays Percy in the movie, just turned 18 in January.
1. Good prose (N/A)
This quality can’t be evaluated for a movie and I haven’t yet read the novel. So, I’m ignoring this quality.
Nonetheless, why was this called The Lightning Thief? Percy’s main quest is getting his mother out of the underworld. He more or less ignores the lightning thief aspect altogether. So why not call this book Highway to Hell or Journey to the Underworld or Saving Percy’s Mom even Demigod’s Dilemma? Those might not have the same ring but they more accurately describe the contents. But I digress…
Timing, pacing, and flow are all good though the beginning does seem a but rushed.
2. Character richness (C-, 77)
Grover, the token african-american character, is the comedy relief – nothing more. And he’s certainly not a very good protector. One would think that if Percy’s life were in real danger, then an appropriately bad-ass person would be protecting him. Ron Weasly in the Harry Potter series easily has more depth. Ron is an expert on all things in the wizarding world plus he’s loyal as Harry’s best friend. Percy’s best friend apparently has no specialty beyond his dance moves and his loyalty ends any time a pretty face comes near. And why didn’t his dancing cause panic in the casino? I mean he is supposed to keep those haunches under wraps in front of the normals, right?
Mom is a stock character. Honestly, she’s either ironing, driving, dead, or stuck behind an invisible barrier for the entire story.
And now we come to Percy. Percy is portrayed as a typical teen with all the worst rebellious tendencies. Percy does show some virtues but they’re only skin deep. He’s more-often a great role-model of how ‘not’ to behave.
- He prefers his iPod to listening to his teachers. (Though there’s no love lost with his substitute English teacher.)
- He attempts to stand up for his mother to his step-father in the apartment (good), but then backs down like a coward to the man’s face (bad). And as soon as his back is turned, Percy opens his mouth for one last jab, the sore loser (worse).
- Percy ignores the advice about wearing a helmet in his first battle and subsequently is wounded in the face.
- He ignores Chiron’s advice about waiting and training and decides he’s smarter going it alone.
- Yet, he pays close attention to Luke’s explanation about the underworld and follows his advice. This is even more distressing once you realize Luke is the thief who stole Zeus’ lightning bolt and thus his ‘help’ is bad. Isn’t this like most real-world teens would do? Go to the friend first who is the same age as you and will give the same, tired, bad advice as compared to someone older and probably wiser?
In short Percy is portrayed as hot-headed with lots of vices but few virtues. He’s shallow. This is both why teens will love it and why everyone else won’t. Nonetheless, Percy is truly an interesting character. I mean he has water powers! He’s also very courageous so you never know quite what he’ll do next. He doesn’t appear to change much over the course of the movie though.
3. Plot construction (D-, 70)
Lots of issues here but I have only one large complaint: Why was the lotus-eaters’ pearl the last one acquired? Challenges must go from easiest to hardest or they will feel off and the movie does feel off at this point. Arguably, the casino is the easiest of the three and thus should have been first with the hydra as the hardest coming last. I realize this causes a geographic problem for the trio, but surely that could have been solved another way. The casino really should have been first.
Question #1: Why did the gods automatically blame Percy for the theft of the lightning? What made them target him of all the demigods? And why did Zeus simply believe he was telling the truth about Luke at the end of the movie? Percy had no proof yet Zeus asked for none either. Zeus is not omniscient or he would have known who stole his lightning in the first place, yet he blindly trusts Percy to tell the truth?! You cannot have it both ways! Zeus comes off as a cardboard character with absolutely no credibility as a god. And how was losing his lightning going to cause a squabble among the gods anyway? What is the reason? Presumably the theft of the lightning is the catalyst but for what exactly? I guess you could say I’m full of questions about this and yet this is the major driving force of the story.
Question #2: Why doesn’t the movie explain things more? Fury, Satyr, Minotaur? One must be a fan of greek mythology to understand all the references without some help. More and better explanations would have helped.
Question #3: Why did the teens drag the unconscious security guards in the Tennessee Parthenon off to the side of the room? Why couldn’t the teens just leave them where they lay? They get up to form the Hydra later but couldn’t they have met in the middle instead of walking out as a group?
Big Spoiler: Talk about your freebies! Percy got the entire quest handed to him by Luke. He did nothing but pay Luke a visit. This seems unreasonable and should have been written better.
4. Thematic depth (F, 40)
Thematic depth. What’s that? Only the father-son relationship between Percy and Poseidon strikes me as even approaching a theme or take-away moral. And it’s portrayed very weakly at best. Perhaps this will develop more in later movies.
This movie pulls out every trick in the dirty teen’s playbook to make it attractive to the chosen age group: young adult males. For example, Percy’s sidekick seems focused more on getting to know the ladies than actually protecting him. The worst example is the not-so-subtle sexual tension with Persephone, wife of Hades. I mean, she’s a married woman! (No comment on her unhappy marriage.) What a terrible message of sex without commitment or consequences this sends. It’s true that Grover is the comedy relief, but there are other forms of comedy that could have been used. And why is sex in a teen movie always treated as comedic in the first place? The fun aspect shouldn’t be overplayed. Sex is a serious business in real life with serious consequences that should not be ignored.
5. Emotion (B-, 85)
This is an adventure flick so there’s plenty of excitement but that’s about all. There are moments where other emotions can come out but the film does not appropriately capitalize on them.
- Percy meeting his father for the first time,
- Percy meeting Annabeth,
- Mom’s capture by the minotaur,
- Percy escaping hades with his mom,
All were essentially wasted opportunities to explore emotion in depth.
The Bottom Line
An average of the scores yields 68 which is technically an F. I am actually being a little forgiving by assigning the movie a D- (70), but I stand by that decision. Weak characters, a hokey plot, and a terrible message killed what could have been the next Harry Potter. Parents should definitely keep their tweens at home from the theater. My advice is to wait and watch this as a movie rental if you really must see it. Maybe the next one will have a better message.
I trust the book will be better once I find time to read it.