From the opening scene, I knew I was going to have issues with this film. It begins with a giant Poseidon emerging from the sea and climbing onto a wharf and frightening an old fisherman speechless. After walking for 50 feet as a giant, he suddenly turns “waterish” and shrinks to normal human size. I’m saying to myself, “Huh? If he can appear as human, why start off as a giant? Wouldn’t that draw undo attention? This makes no sense!”
The film continues from there, piling on the convenient coincidences, logic leaps, bad dialog and acting, and idiotic plot. The plot… oh dear, I must mention the plot. It is so lame as to be laughable. The premise of the film has potential: basically the ancient Greek gods and goddesses still exist and still occasionally, hem, “hook up” with mortals and produce demigod offspring. Our titular Percy Jackson is one of these, the son of Poseidon, one of the top three gods, but he has never known his dad (there’s a rule forbidding gods to have contact with their half-human children). Percy has no idea he’s a demigod and struggles with feelings of being different all his life. Our poor story consists of Zeus, the head god, being angry that someone has stolen his lightning bolt. (How that could happen to such a powerful god isn’t explained and is one of the film’s key skips of logic.) Only a demigod could have taken it and he assumes it must be Poseidon’s son (presumably because only a child of the big three would be powerful enough). Zeus is so pissed he gives an ultimatum: there will be war among the gods if his bolt isn’t returned in a fortnight. Apparently this war would accidentally destroy earth as a side effect, so it’s important to us this war be stopped. Thus starts a crazy quest by Percy where he: is attacked by monsters and learns he’s a demigod, goes to a secret training camp for demigods to learn to fight (with a mere ten days until the deadline, despite that many of the other demigod children have been training their entire lives), leaves the camp to rescue his kidnapped mother, and finds the lightning bolt and returns it to Zeus before the deadline. There are so many problems here I hardly know where to begin. For instance, Percy’s life has always been in such danger that his mother was forced to stay with an abusive man because his repulsive odor masked the smell of Percy’s blood from the bad creatures. But the camp is supernaturally protected: why couldn’t he have stayed there like the others? Another issue is that Percy’s goal isn’t to find the lightning bolt and stop the war: he only wants to rescue his mother. But he’s so dumb he’s ready to leave camp on his own without even knowing how to find and get into Hades! (That’s another thing: you would think that learning you’re a demigod and have special powers and that creatures like furies and minotaurs exist would give you at least a little pause, but Percy takes everything in such uncritical stride it’s a joke.)
But here’s the strange thing. Despite a rocky start and a nonsensical plot, the film started to work for me. Oh, it’s dumb. Really dumb. But it’s sort of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It throws out bits of pieces of random Greek mythology at the viewer with a tongue-in-cheek glee, and sometimes it’s quite clever. For instance, I liked the way it would pair modern things with the ancient, such as making the new Mount Olympus the Empire State Building or setting Hades (Hell) in Hollywood. My favorite was having the “island of the Lotus eaters” myth set in a Las Vegas casino where our heros eat the free food and fall into a drugged stupor, not unlike the effect of real casinos!
The characters are also fun: our heroic trio consists of Percy, the beautiful Annabel (daughter of Athena and our requisite love interest), and Grover, a satyr (goat man), who’s the much-appreciated comic relief. Grover really makes things tick because he’s not so dumbed down as to be useless and annoying, but he’s just off enough to be interesting. My favorite Grover moment was the one where he just nonchalantly starts tearing bites off an aluminum can and casually eats it. This was perfectly done, without undo emphasis (not even a raised eyebrow by the others). Hilarious!
Next we get cameos of famous actors slumming it up small but fun roles as various monsters and villains, such as Uma Thurman playing a terrific snake-headed Medusa. This adds to the film’s charm and humor.
But what really makes things work are the well-done puzzles and challenges the team faces. Okay, we’re not talking ingenious plot here, but it’s deftly handled in ways that are believable and that push our hero into gradually learning about his powers. (He doesn’t just automatically know how to do god-like things: he has to be clever, and each member of the trio contributes.) I also like that though the film repeats Greek mythology it doesn’t just copy the solutions from the original stories (though there are echoes, like using the shiny back of an iPod touch as a mirror to face the can’t-look-at-her Medusa). As you get into this part of the story, you’re enjoying yourself and the plot silliness hardly matters. (It also moves at a fast pace, which helps.)
The ending has some issues but is decent enough, and certainly satisfying. I liked the way all the storylines were wrapped up. Overall, though filled with flaws, the film still works: it’s silly fun, great for kids (though young ones might be frightened by some of the Hades imagery), and the special effects — though shockingly fake-looking at times — are occasionally superb. It’s actually a pleasant film, which is more than I can say for many. I would liken it to the similarly flawed-but-fun Journey to the Center of the Earth from a few years ago. If you can turn off your brain enough to enjoy it, go for it!