High school misfit Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) has serious skills underwater but dyslexia and ADHD mean he struggles in class. His home life is hardly any happier as he hates watching his mother suffer at the hands of his bullying stepfather (Joe Pantoliano). Life takes an unexpected turn when Percy discovers he is actually the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), the Greek god of the sea, part of the pantheon that still dwell on Mount Olympus. In a series of fantastical events, dark forces abduct Percy's mother before he manifests his demi-godly superpowers in battle with assorted evil monsters. He ends up at Camp Half-Blood, honing his skills with fellow Olympian offspring under the tutelage of sagely centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) and falling in love with Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), fetching but formidable daughter of Athena, goddess of Wisdom. It transpires that Zeus (Sean Bean), king of the gods, has lost his lightning bolt. Somehow Percy emerges the prime suspect. When Hades (Steve Coogan), god of the underworld, manifests at the camp as a big scary demon offering the safe return of his mother in exchange for the bolt, Percy together with Annabeth and his stalwart satyr friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) embark on a perilous quest to prevent the outbreak of a cataclysmic war among the gods.
Based on the first in a series of young adult fantasy novels by Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief (released stateside under the more cumbersome title: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) was part of the first wave of teen fantasy literary adaptations spawned by the success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) rather than the second, slightly more mature, romantically inclined wave that followed Twilight (2008). It shared the same director in Chris Columbus who no doubt set about revisiting the genre in the hope lightning would strike twice - and I make no apologies for the lame pun. Perfunctory might be too harsh a word to describe an admittedly solidly crafted juvenile adventure but the fact is Columbus handled the task of envisioning Riordan's re-imagining of ancient Greek myths in efficient rather than inspired fashion. The set-up is regrettably clumsy, lacking the simple eloquence of our introduction to Harry Potter, although Percy's shock discovery that his creepy substitute teacher is a hideous winged Fury and his unimpressed reaction to being presented with a magic pen prove genuinely amusing. Thereafter the film bombards viewers with a rush of exposition barely allowing for time to soak it all in whilst relying excessively upon handy voice-overs from Poseidon for plot info and deus ex machina superpowers.
Nevertheless the film tweaks Greek myths more ingenuity and charm than Louis Letterier's bombastic remake of Clash of the Titans released the same year. When Uma Thurman's vampish Medusa tells Percy "I used to date your daddy", anyone versed in the original stories will know the filmmakers are playing fast and loose with Greek mythology. Which is fine. Even Ray Harryhausen was never entirely faithful with Jason and the Argonauts (1963) or his original Clash of the Titans (1981). Also the definition of a hero according to the ancient Greeks differs radically from our contemporary conception, being closer to a self-serving jerk than the valiant, altruistic Percy Jackson. As is the case with a lot of teen fantasy fiction that which marks the protagonist an outsider in "normal" society, i.e. high school, is the same thing that makes him a hero. Yet although Percy Jackson stands out amidst the teen fantasy hero pack by virtue of his dyslexia and ADHD, the plot makes surprisingly little of these.
After the awkward tone of the first act the film gradually settles into a lively, endearing, even inventive juvenile romp. The journey to the underworld is a staple of Greek mythology and the film pulls off an array of eye-catching monster encounters (the Hydra proves especially impressive) alongside such witty highlights as the heroes trapped in a time loop amidst an underworld re-imagined as a Las Vegas casino. Plus you have got to laugh when the gateway to hell lies just behind the Hollywood sign. Interestingly, for a teen fantasy romp the film also exhibits a surprisingly mature attitude to sex from the flirty banter between Percy and Annabeth to Rosario Dawsons' seductive turn as Queen Persephone. Riordan does not quite do for the American Summer Camp experience what J.K. Rowling did for British boarding schools but personally Camp Half-Blood strikes me as a less suffocating environment than Hogwarts. It is a shame we spend so little time there.
The all star supporting cast prove hit and miss. Pierce Brosnan excels as Percy's centaur mentor and Steve Coogan gives a fun rock and roll reinterpretation of Hades. Hissing like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Uma Thurman treads a neat line between menacing and camp as Medusa. Alas, on the opposite end of the spectrum Catherine Keener is wasted in an underwritten role while as the gods of Olympus, Kevin McKidd and Sean Bean appear completely befuddled as to what they are required to do. Their solemn confrontations fall flat. By contrast the young leads are far more impressive. Brandon T. Jackson is likeable as the loyal satyr sidekick, Alexandra Daddario is very striking as Percy's ass-kicking Amazonian love interest and Logan Lerman exhibits the quiet charisma that went on to win him a slew of increasingly ambitious and impressive film roles. While the film did not spark the franchise the creators hoped for it still proved successful enough to sire the sequel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013).