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Percy Jackson And The Olympians Review: A Heroic Coming-Of-Age Tale

  • Strong performances from the young cast
  • Captures the spirit of the books
  • Cheap-looking special effects

For many networks and streamers, there's an endless effort to bring YA fantasy to life on screen. But what works so well on the page is often unable to translate in a visual medium, which is perhaps why so many popular literary franchises have failed to launch. However, despite the difficulties inherent in adapting a larger-than-life fantasy series, Disney's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" has unmistakable promise. As a series rather than one or two feature films, its pacing gives the narrative room to breathe. Although it likely won't be winning any special effects awards anytime soon, its lack of visual sophistication is more than made up for by the talents of its young cast, especially Walker Scobell in the lead role of Percy Jackson.

Percy is an ordinary 12-year-old boy growing up with his mother in New York City — ordinary except for all the ways in which he is different, anyway. He struggles with his concentration, often having what he believes to be daydreams about mythological monsters when he's supposed to be paying attention in class. Letters jumble together on the page, making it difficult for him to study, and if it weren't for his quirky classmate, Grover (Aryan Simhadri), who is just as much of a social outcast as Percy, he wouldn't have any friends at school. Trouble simply has a way of finding him. When he goes on a class field trip, for instance, he ends up almost being murdered by one of his teachers. But hey, that could happen to anyone, right?

Actually, the reason for Percy's difficulties is more complicated than initially meets the eye. He's not just a weird kid who struggles in school — he's the son of a Greek god, and as such, has a massive target on his back. As it turns out, the only place that's safe for him is Camp Half-Blood, a summer getaway in Long Island for the demigod children of the residents of Mount Olympus who simply can't stop reproducing with every mortal who crosses their path. There, he'll learn about his family, discover the full extent of his abilities, and become a true hero — if he survives, that is.

Empowering messages

Much like the Rick Riordan novel series "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" is based on, the show features intricate world-building that gets the audience invested almost immediately. It gets the opportunity to delve into the interpersonal dynamics at Camp Half-Blood while still doing justice to the quest that Percy embarks upon — it's a wonder what writers can do when they have a full season to play around with instead of having to cram an entire fantasy novel's worth of plot points into a two-hour film.

One of the most endearing aspects of the series as a whole, and one that comes through especially well in this series, is the message that the things you consider your weaknesses play a huge role in making you who you are. As Percy's mother tells him, you're not broken. You are singular. His dyslexia and ADHD don't make him dumb or unworthy — his brain is just wired a little differently. Underneath all the fantasy action set pieces, that's an incredibly positive lesson for young audiences to absorb.

A troupe of demigods

The casting director of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" did a great job of pulling together a talented young cast of demigods. The kids are all well-suited to their roles — Aryan Simhadri as Grover has excellent comic timing and never falls into the trap of making the character too big; Leah Jeffries as Annabeth possesses an aura of shrewd intelligence; and Walker Scobell as Percy feels like the rare combination of an underdog with tremendous screen presence. The decision to cast Percy as an actual preteen works well — Scobell was only about 13 when the show was being filmed, and his character's identity crisis makes sense within the context of a young boy trying to figure out where he fits in the world. Logan Lerman, though a good fit for Percy Jackson in the 2010 film version, was nearly 18 years old at the time, completely changing the tenor of the character.

Although some members of the adult cast feel like they're phoning it in a little bit (including, it's sad to say, the usually hilarious Jason Mantzoukas as Camp Director Dionysus, which on the surface is a perfect piece of casting but fails to live up to its potential), others bring emotional depth to their limited screentime. Virginia Kull, for example, wins us over in approximately four seconds as Percy's devoted mother.

If there's one real weakness in this production of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians," it's that it features more than a few shoddy CG effects in its effort to bring Greek monsters to life. This thing is made on a TV budget, and it shows — the special effects are dated and cartoonish, and it almost feels as though they might have been better off incorporating practical effects into some of their major set pieces. But on the other hand, it's unlikely that fans of the series are tuning in for its special effects, and if a slightly less ballooning budget prevents the show from getting prematurely canceled, it's a small price to pay. This is the "Percy Jackson" that fans have been waiting for.

"Percy Jackson and the Olympians" premieres on Disney+ on December 20.