WHEN IT BEGINS, the exhaustingly titled Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief feels like it should be titled Harry Potter for Kids with Microscopic Attention Spans and Deadbeat Dads. Like a media franchise dreamed up by a marketing team, Percy Jackson hits all the Joseph Campbell-approved story beats, while also catering to today's semi-troubled teens: Normal kid Percy (Logan Lerman) struggles with ADHD, dyslexia, and the fact that his father left him and his mother (Catherine Keener) when he was just a baby. In other words, life's pretty realistic and crappy—until Percy discovers that not only do the ancient Greek gods really exist, but his dad is Poseidon (Kevin McKidd)! So now Percy gets to attend a special school, Hogwarts Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters Camp Half-Blood, where his teacher is a centaur with the head of James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), his best friend is Grover, a wise-crackin' African American satyr (Brandon T. Jackson, doing a fairly annoying Marlon Wayans impression), and he gets to make gooey eyes at Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who's the half-daughter of Athena or something. AND it turns out Percy's dyslexia and ADHD are good things, 'cause, uh, they help him read Greek and have fast reflexes or some crap like that. OH, AND, turns out Percy's dad never wanted to leave him, but he had to! Life doesn't suck after all!
Well, except Percy's mom has been kidnapped by a crappy CG minotaur, and Percy's dad and his Uncle Zeus and Uncle Hades are in some big fight about a lightning bolt; and the fate of the world depends on Percy, blah blah blah. So Percy teams up with Hermione and Ron Annabeth and Grover and finally leaves Hogwarts Camp Half-Blood on a quest to the underworld, and it's around this point—about 40 moderately excruciating minutes in—that Percy Jackson stops feeling like a shitty Harry Potter rip-off and starts to turn into something kinda fun.
Don't misunderstand—Percy Jackson is never good, and the fact that it's directed by Chris Columbus means it's never very smart or engaging. (Columbus is also the dude responsible for—surprise!—the crappy first two Harry Potter movies.) But Percy Jackson, based on a series of children's novels by Rick Riordan, steadily improves, getting weirder and more fun as it goes: Uma Thurman camps it up as a sunglasses-wearing Medusa; Rosario Dawson and Steve Coogan goof around as Persephone and Hades; Remington Steele certainly does look proud as he trots and canters about. Hydras are fought, pairs of Chuck Taylors with flapping wings on them are worn, and—in the film's one bit of true cleverness—the kids visit a Vegas casino that's run by lotus-eaters, who keep their clientele imprisoned by comping them hallucinogenic lotus flowers.
At its goofy best, Percy Jackson feels like a fun episode of Hercules or Xena, and is about as well made. This is the sort of movie where, when the kids board a Greyhound bus to begin their journey to Hades, AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" plays over the soundtrack; later, in the lotus-eaters' casino, a hopped-up-on-lotus-flowers Grover does a choreographed dance routine with a bunch of skanky Vegas showgirls to "Poker Face." Percy Jackson, you might have started out as a soulless and calculated Harry Potter knockoff, but apparently, you know me well: Give me a cool fight against a hydra and a stoned-out-of-his-mind satyr dancing to Lady Gaga, and you've won me over.