Friday, August 5, 2011

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Diary of A Wimpy Kid

2010, Chris Columbus - netflix

With Harry Potter being the overwhelming and all-consuming phenomenon that it was, Hollywood has for the past decade been on a frantic and desperate search for "the next Harry Potter", adapting literally every book series that has done remotely well into a film series (okay, not literally, but it doesn't seem that far off does it?). The adaptations of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series have yielded Disney diminishing returns, but it's no surprise since it started off so toothless. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was well adapted, maintaining much of the dark humour but didn't quite catch on like the book series did. Twilght though a phenomenon all its own still doesn't have anywhere near the same broad appeal as Harry Potter. Then there's the less notables: City of Ember, I Am Number Four, Jumper, and I'm sure dozens of others I'm forgetting all based on quasi-popular fantasy/sci-fi book series looking to elevate to the next level. Forthcoming are adaptations of the grim Hunger Games, Edgar Rice Burroughs classic SF/fantasy John Carter series, and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. But what these film don't have that Harry Potter did, is the groundswell effect, a rabid fanbase that didn't come through the product by force but by word of mouth, and retained by quality. Not only that, the Harry Potter series reached out to people of all ages. A friend's daughter is 3 and has attentively watched the first movie numerous times. My wife's 50-something aunt and her husband went to see Deathly Hollows Pt. 2 having never watched nor read anything Harry Potter before. The series works so well because it can capture the juvenile mind early on and then entice the adult mind later. The attention and care put into the world and the characters will be legendary, living alongside C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkein as a masterpiece of epic fantasy for the century to come and beyond.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, though it shares the same director as the first two Harry Potter films in Chris Columbus, is just another also-ran in the youth book-to-screen adaptations. The conceit is an engaging one, that the Greek gods are still ruling on high, mating with the human population on a frequent enough basis, their half-blood children, Olympians all, are imbued with talents and traits which must be hidden from the modern-day public. The big-three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades are generally out of the "fathering" game, which makes Percy Jackson a unique commodity, and thus he's been kept hidden from the other gods and Olympians by his human mother. But Zeus is no fool. When his lighting is stolen, his only thought is one of his brothers or their offspring are capable of being responsible. Thus Percy Jackson's crummy little life is revealed to be something greater, and he sets out on a quest to clear himeslf (though not before going to Olympian camp, where he learns his best friend is a satyr and makes googey eyes at the daughter of Athena.

Though intending to be reflective of the classic hero's journey, the films core plot isn't all that inspired, and Percy's raison-d'etre isn't all that heroic. Percy himself becomes rather cocky and confident too quickly, lacking any of Harry Potter's humility or reservations about his own ability. Ego of the gods is a longstanding tradition, but it makes for a somewhat unlikeable hero. Even though I do have a soft spot for the superheros of yesteryear, I admit I'm not well versed in the intricacies of Greek mythology, but it's easy to see there are a lot of contradictions to classic mythology which the film and story are the lesser for. It's a fairly middling attempt made to integrate the gods of old into a modern context, and that's perhaps the most unfortunate part. The relevance of the Greek Gods to modern society is nil, so it would have been nice to see how they deal with that conflict in the film, instead they're just kind of dealt with like demons and vampires are on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There's a couple of good scenes (the casino sequence is a good one) and more than a few derivative ones (the Medusa sequence, featuring Uma Thurman as the Gorgon). Some of the effects were terrific (Poseidon's changing to human form made for an awesome opening sequence), others less so (the half-blood camp was altogether a silly place). The acting was universally acceptable, from the teens to Thurman and Steve Coogan chewing up scenery, yet, I'm not certain who guided Percy actor Logan Lerman to react to his mother's death at the hands of a Minotaur with general indifference at worse, a slight mope at best. The film made pains to skew "modern" but even though it's only a year old film at this point it felt dated by at least five or ten years. This film, though enjoyable, wont have much relevance to target age group of pre-teens/teens, and doesn't have much of a larger crossover appeal (though given the scope of the action it was definitely intending to) with an adult audience because it's frankly too juvenile in its action and adventuring (which is likely a result of its shift in Percy's age from 12 to 17 in the adaptation process).

2010, Thor Freudenthal - netflix

Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn't meant to be a direct Harry Potter replacement, but it is yet another mining of a successful book series for hopeful cinematic success. The appeal of the "Wimpy Kid" series is targeted squarely at the pre-teen/tween category, but like any recollective (if that wasn't a word before, it is now) TV series or film (Wonder Years, Stand By Me, Freaks and Geeks, Everybody Hates Chris) that looks back upon the complexities of growing up, it can have innate broader appeal by pointing out the universality of the character and his situations. The difference here is it's a more immediate recollection, taking place in something close to modern day, and narrated in lead character Greg Heffley's voice, like reflecting upon a photograph just after it was taken.

The Wimpy Kid book series features a lot of cartoon illustrations, something which the film adopts nicely as a comedic device to accentuate Greg's emotions or display his situations to an exaggerated effect. Greg Heffley has just started middle school, where as a small pre-pubescent with a highly immature best friend, embarrassment looms around every corner, and Greg invariably runs head-long into it. The Wimpy Kid series is "cringe humour" of the Seinfeld-ian/Curb Your Enthusiasm sort for the juvenile set and it's pretty effective at it. Greg is, quite frankly, a selfish, awful character, only looking out for himself and his own desire to be a "cool kid", and it's this aspect of the character that wears down his appeal and charm as the film goes on. My stepson was defensive of the character, which I can understand being so much closer to the age and emotions of the character that he can connect with his emotions and situation, but ultimately he makes every wrong decision, constantly says the wrong thing, and doesn't seem to ever express remorse. I'm quite sure he's a bad role model, even if he's not exactly a bad person.

The Freaks and Geeks influence is apparent, as Greg, who likens himself a popular, relatable, likeable fellow is either willfully oblivious of his true standing as outcast or completely blind to it, charging through his world with ownership of it, but what he doesn't realize is that he's not the only one who exists in his world, nor does he ever seem to realize his behavior has repercussions that don't just impact his own life.

I have to give the film credit for reigning in the juvenile humour (burping, farting, vomiting) and omitting the nods to adults that seems to permeate much of the youth film market (mostly in the guise of repackaged TV series), and also for attempting an American Splendor for the tween set. But at the same time, I'm not certain whether the influence of a selfish and self-serving lead is presented with enough awareness for kids to understand the irony in this wimp's so-called life, and if they see it for the warning it should be.