Monday, February 15, 2010

Percy Potter

On Saturday, I drove south and visited my buddy Mike and his family. It was his second daughter's birthday, and we went to see "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." Had I been more up on my Greek mythology, I would have realized who the thief was much sooner than I actually did (hint: who's the Greek god of, among other things, thieves?).

The movie proved to be decent popcorn fare for the kids, and some of the performances-- especially that of Uma Thurman as Medusa-- were memorable even for us adults. Unfortunately, my main beef with "Lightning Thief" is something that many critics have also picked up on: the storyline is a shameless Harry Potter ripoff. This Slate review says it best:

The series delighted my daughter but irritated me with its overwhelming, blatant borrowing from Harry Potter. Percy is American-- that's a difference. And his magic comes from Greek gods, not wizards. But almost every other significant element in the books-- particularly the first book, The Lightning Thief-- is derivative. An average boy living with a vicious, bullying relative suddenly learns of his special powers and finds out that he's actually a celebrity in the magical world. (Hmm, where have I heard that?) Percy's quickly transported to a mysterious place where other extraordinary kids learn to harness their powers, but it's not Hogwarts, it's "Camp Half-Blood." Hogwarts has "houses"; Camp Half-Blood has "cabins." Hogwarts has Quidditch; Camp Half-Blood has epic games of capture-the-flag. Hogwarts is supervised by a gentle, bearded, and mighty wizard; Camp Half-Blood by a gentle, bearded, and mighty centaur. Our hero-- whose name even has the same rhythm as Potter (Har-ry Pot-ter; Per-cy Jack-son)-- soon attracts two sidekicks. One, Annabeth Chase, is a book-smart girl who starts out as a rival but becomes a friend. The other, Grover Underwood, is goofy, physically awkward, and loyal. These three set out to retrieve an all-powerful magical object that's been lost (Potter: sorcerer's stone; Jackson: lightning bolt of Zeus), confront the forces of darkness, and-- through courage and guile-- emerge victorious.

In short, it's a rip-off.

Children might strenuously object, citing a long list of differences in biographical detail between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson ("Harry's got a lightning bolt on his forehead! Percy doesn't!"), but we adults accumulate multiple forms of wisdom as we get older, one of which is the ability to step back from a cloud of minutiae to take in the underlying or overarching structure of a literary or filmic work-- to behold its skeleton and proclaim it, when necessary, a poxy clone. Elementary schoolers see only difference because they haven't yet refined their ability to descry abstracta and make intelligent comparisons.

So the above reviewer hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned, and since his critique applied as much to the books as to the movie, I now know that I won't be perusing the books anytime soon.

None of which is to say that I spent two hours in the cinema grinding my teeth in barely-suppressed fury. Quite the contrary, I thought the film was a hoot-- corny and overly Hollywoodized, yes, but watchable. Uma wasn't the only reason why "Lighting Thief" was enjoyable: Pierce Brosnan, as a centaur, made a joke about his own fat ass, and several naughty instances of bestiality humor (some of it goat-oriented) were slipped into the dialogue for the sake of the grownups watching the film. Would I see the movie again? No. But if you have to watch it with some kids, it's a perfectly harmless experience.


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