A headstrong teen with abandonment issues finds himself at the center of a magical destiny. It’s Harry Potter. It’s Luke Skywalker. It’s Joseph Campbell’s legacy in a nutshell, and it’s the exact role that Percy Jackson fulfills in 'Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief', which is equal parts derivative would-be franchise starter and surprisingly inspired teen take on the mythos surrounding the Greek gods.Percy (Logan Lerman) is a dyslexic student with a knack for holding his breath underwater and a low tolerance for the way his mom’s boor of a boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano) treats her (Catherine Keener). Once a slimy substitute attacks him on a school outing over the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt, the jig is up – Percy’s the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), brother of Zeus (Sean Bean); the wheelchair-bound Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) is actually a centaur; his wise-cracking, crutch-wielding best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) is really a satyr; and the fate of Heaven and Earth rests suddenly on Percy’s shoulders.
And before you can say “magic school for other kids like him,” Percy’s whisked off to a special camp (see? totally different) for other kids like him, where he meets the frisky likes of Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and must master swordplay and such before embarking on a cross-country road trip that ranges from New York to Los Angeles and offers foes from Medusa (a preening Uma Thurman) to Hades (a droll Steve Coogan).
It’s a hero’s journey like any other, combined with your typical road trip romp and infused with a more distinctly American sense of ego and peril over the relatively English sense of wonder and mystery that permeated the first couple of Harry Potter films. Director Chris Columbus was responsible for the first two of that series, and here, he wrangles the special effects as well as anyone could while letting the considerable ensemble bring their own personality to the proceedings. Coogan brings a fun rock-star sensibility to his Hades, Rosario Dawson is as sultry as ever as wife Persephone, and Thurman dominates her single sequence with welcome relish.
Everyone else – Keener as concerned mother, Brosnan as sage mentor, Jackson as comic relief – sticks by those one-note standards, and Lerman himself is a perfectly adequate avatar for any kid who wished that their learning disabilities could be chalked up to a brain hard-wired to read Greek instead of English and that their absent father was too busy governing the seas from Mount Olympus to stop by every once in a while.
In adapting Rick Riordan’s novel, Craig Titley keeps things moving at a lively pace and constantly adds clever touches to mythic standbys. Hermes’ wing-tipped sandals are transformed into flying Chuck Taylor All-Stars, a certain snake-headed diva is defeated with the use of an iPod’s reflection, and a trippy Vegas detour owes itself to The Wizard of Oz more than anything.If Harry Potter is the hero that your children grow up with, then Percy Jackson’s more like the hero they’d rather hang out with. A demigod could face a worse fate than that.