By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; WE29
Harry, Ron and Hermione: Relax. You could whip Percy Jackson and his pals with your wand hands tied behind your backs. As magical teenage movie heroes go, the adolescent trio at the center of "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is no match for the gang from Gryffindor.
Mostly, it's a matter of casting.
Fans of Rick Riordan's books -- a five-volume series about a boy who discovers he's the half-human, half-divine son of the Greek god Poseidon -- will be disappointed to learn that, in the translation of this first book from page to screen, the title character has gone from a wisecracking misfit who wakes up with superpowers to, well, a washout. In the book, he's like Holden Caulfield with a sword. And "phonies" are people who transform into Furies and hydras.
As played by Logan Lerman, Percy is a pretty boy with good hair but no discernable interior life. The special effects have more going on behind their eyes.
In the smart-girl role of the goddess Athena's daughter Annabeth, Alexandra Daddario doesn't fare much better. Together, she and her co-star make Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens look like Tracy and Hepburn. Only Brandon T. Jackson manages to make much of an impression as Grover, the goofy, jive-talking satyr who is Percy's best friend.
Then there's the story.
Most of it survives the adaptation by director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Craig Titley. When Percy is accused of stealing a lightning bolt belonging to Zeus (Sean Bean), the boy and his friends must put things right. Which means not only finding out who the real thief is but also rescuing Percy's mortal mother (Catherine Keener), who has been abducted by Hades (Steve Coogan, in a bit of brilliant, if eccentric, casting).
Never mind that entire characters have been eliminated in the process of turning Riordan's book into a movie. The god Ares is missing, for instance, along with his half-blood daughter Clarisse. And never mind that whole scenes had to be rewritten to become more, you know, cinematic. There's lots more flying around now, in a climactic scene that looks suspiciously like a rip-off of Quidditch.
Hey, that's showbiz, folks. And the book had waaay too much going on in it anyway.
Fortunately, two great set pieces remain largely intact: a sequence where the kids run into Medusa (Uma Thurman, wearing a coif of wriggling, computer-generated snakes) and one where Percy, Annabeth and Grover get waylaid in a Vegas casino with a bunch of drugged-out lotus eaters.
What hurts more than little tweaks -- a character here, a scene there -- is the almost wholesale loss of the book's voice. Percy's sense of humor, as realized by Riordan, was a sardonic delight. And Percy's literary adventures, while they could at times be violent, were always tempered with narrative wit.
Don't get me wrong. A couple of characters get off some real zingers here. Grover actually suggests, at one point, that President Obama might be a demigod.
But the movie suffers by taking itself a little too seriously. It's not just that it's a lot less funny than the book. It's also a lot less fun.
** PG. At area theaters. Contains action violence, monsters, suggestive material and a bit of crude language. 119 minutes.