Appreciating that life can be busy, and you don’t often get time to read through more than one film review, I’m going to knock out two in one go here, and then deal with a few specifics at the end.
Basically, you can use this review for both Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief, and Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (aka Sorceror’s Stone in the US). Just delete the required names as you go along, depending on which film you want to know about…
Director Chris Columbus knows how to set himself a challenge. In being the first direct to bring the world of Harry Potter/Percy Jackson to the big screen, he’s armed himself with a toolkit of lots of special effects, a cast of unknown young actors and some recognised names among the supporting cast. Plus, he’s clearly got a budget and a half from a studio, Warner Bros/Fox, eagerly looking for a major new family franchise.
When we first meet Harry/Percy, he’s a boy clearly unaware of his place in the world. Played by relative newcomer Daniel Radcliffe/Logan Lerman, Harry/Percy has questions as to his parents, and lives in a relatively unhappy home. His only obvious father figure, Uncle Vernon/stepfather Gabe, has nothing but dislike for him, and Harry/Percy seems to be somewhat out of place in the world. We get probably a little too long of what’s effectively the prologue to the story, but it does set the scene decently enough.
Columbus does soon get down to business, though, and reaches into his special effects toolbox to mark Harry’s/Percy’s migration into his new surroundings. So when Harry/Percy gets pelted by letters/yanked into the air by some odd creature, it sets him off on a path to what emerges as his pre-destined life.
And what a bewildering one it is. Harry/Percy arrives at Hogwarts/Camp Half Blood (it really is called that, too), and he’s taken under his wing by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane, with beard)/Chiron (Pierce Brosnan, with beard), who lets him into some of the hidden secrets of his life, and sets about making sure he’s prepared for the challenges set to come.
Furthermore, at Hogwarts/Camp Half Blood, Harry/Percy ultimately teams up with two friends, again played by relative newcomers. Ron/Grover immediately seems to be the closest friend Harry/Percy has, but the introduction of Hermione/Annabeth soon turns his head. Hermione/Annabeth is both clever and feisty, and there’s an underdeveloped undercurrent of attraction between them. That said, as the film progresses, Hermione/Annabeth isn’t always put across as quite the strong figure she first appears, but actress Emma Watson/Alexandra Daddario is the best of the three child actors.
Harry’s/Percy’s journey, once acquainted with his surroundings, soon takes him to dangerous territory, where the watchful eye of Dumbledore/Zeus can do little to protect him. At one stage, he has to master flying a broom/flying trainers, something that will, no doubt, come in useful later in the franchise, and Columbus – while letting the running time drag on by being just a little too reverential to the source material – proves entirely competent at throwing in a useful special effects sequence from time to time to spice things up. He’s also served by some genuinely excellent production design, and scenes that positively swim with extras. Whatever you think of Harry Potter/Percy Jackson, it’s often brilliant to look at.
Columbus’ wisest move is to fill his film with some strong supporting actors. Richard Harris/Sean Bean looks suitably important as required, and Julie Waters/Catherine Keener slips into the required maternal role well. Their roles are too brief, but their presence on screen always welcome. Good to see Alan Rickman/Rosario Dawson as one of the more complex characters in the film, too, and injecting quality British comedy talent such as John Cleese/Steve Coogan adds a bit of fun.
Where Harry Potter/Percy Jackson hots up is towards the end of its story, where Columbus proves that he’s adept at staging really quite complex and impressive sequences. Backed by a good score from John Williams/Christophe Beck, he inevitably ends the film perfectly positioned to continue the franchise, with the feeling that there may be dark days ahead.
Harry Potter/Percy Jackson isn’t, to be fair, the most ambitious family film you’re likely to see, and at times it falls back on the popularity of the book that inspired it a little too much. But it’s a competent starting point for the franchise, and the building blocks are clearly in place for a sequel. Arguably, this first film asks a little too much of Radcliffe/Lerman in the title role, and often the complexity of their situation is lost – after all, being yanked away from your home/watching your mother die would, presumably, mess with your head far more than we’re led to believe here.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Columbus just about gives you your money’s worth, and as such, Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone/Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Clone does amount to a decent family afternoon out at the movies. It’s just there’s potential for it to be a bit more than that…
PS. To give Percy Jackson its due, it does peak when it occasionally goes off the beaten track, and also when it allows young actor Brandon T Jackson to cut free a little. For instance, there’s one place that the young trio visit that feels like something out of a different movie altogether, yet the film feels better for trying it.
And Uma Thurman pops up too, as a half-decent Medusa, but, sadly, her scenes are overshadowed by singularly the worst piece of product placement we’ve ever seen in the movies. Other than that, even the poster for it looks like it’s come from the same publicity playback as Harry Potter…
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief opens in UK cinemas on February 12.