Harry Potter knockoffs don’t come more transparent and slapdash than Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, a wannabe-franchise jumpstarter directed by Chris Columbus with the same flat, crane-shot-obsessed aesthetic blandness that he brought to his first two Potter movie adaptations. Aping J.K. Rowling’s saga every step of the way to Mount Olympus, the film (based on Rick Riordan’s popular kids-lit series) concerns high-schooler Percy (Logan Lerman), who suddenly discovers not only that he’s the demigod son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), but that he’s been accused by Zeus (Sean Bean) of stealing his lightning bolt. Why Zeus suspects Percy rather than the child of any other god is never explained, but such an early, gaping plot hole is in keeping with the subsequent incoherent action.
After being attacked by a harpy (masquerading as a substitute teacher) and a minotaur, Percy is guided to Hogwarts, er, I mean Camp Half-Blood, where a Dumbledore-ish centaur (Pierce Brosnan, looking drowsy) explains the nuts and bolts of humans’ relationship to gods. There, already accompanied by a wisecracking best friend named Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), who, it turns out, is actually a goat-boy satyr, Percy also teams up with Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the fetching warrior daughter of Athena. With his Ron and Hermione stand-ins at his side, Percy embarks on a quest to rescue his mom (Catherine Keener, asked only to appear disheveled) from Hades and uncover the true lightning thief. It’s a mission which leads to encounters with Medusa (Uma Thurman) and a hydra that are full of second-rate special effects sound and fury as well as, more gratingly, gargantuan plotting inconsistencies and question marks. Columbus speeds past any and all questions about how any of this mishmash ties together, and yet his hurried, middling stewardship nonetheless results in overwhelming torpor.
By the time the heroic trio reaches the underworld and, in one of many squandered comedic opportunities, Hades turns out to be Steve Coogan dressed as a middle-aged heavy metal roadie, Lightning Thief has, in the grand tradition of Eragon, accomplished nothing except provide detailed fantasy-film plagiarism instructions, one of which is to create an innocuous protagonist with no discernable traits aside from being “heroic.” By making his characters teenagers rather than 12 (as in the books) and, consequently, indulging in DOA horndog jokes and a tepid romantic subplot, Columbus presumably hopes to court an aging Potter fanbase. Save for the brief appearance of brimstone-hot Rosario Dawson as Hades’s imprisoned lover Persephone, however, there’s nothing mature (much less clever and exciting) about this feeble endeavor, right down to the embarrassing-for-all-parties soundtrack use of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”