Idol Chatter

Percy Jackson and the OlympiansThe good thing about being a demigod–the half-human offspring of a Greek god and one of the god’s earthly romantic dalliances–is that you have a natural propensity for swordplay and a couple of nifty superpowers. The downside is that you have one distant parent, trouble sitting still in English class (what’s on the board is all Greek to you), and fangy Furies have a way of popping up at odd moments.
At least, that’s life for Percy Jackson, the dyslexic, ADHD teen hero of a popular series of tweener fantasy thrillers by former English teacher Rick Riordan, and now of Fox’s rousing movie version of the first installment, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” opening around the country on Friday.

Percy’s mamby-pamby mom (Catherine Keener, who, after “Where the Wild Things Are,” seems to have gotten trapped in playing weak single mothers) has few answers about his learning disability or about why she puts up with his boorish slob of a stepdad. His new school is supposed to help him cope, but the only thing that seems to help is the school’s swimming pool. When he needs a time out, Percy chills for Guiness Book of World Record-length stints underwater.
Then, on a school field trip to the Greek and Roman wing of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the signs re-scramble themselves like secret messages in one of Harry Potter’s riddles (“Percy” director Chris Columbus handled the first two Potter films), and Percy realizes he isn’t so much suffering from a learning disability as he is wired for another world altogether. His prowess in the pool, it turns out, he comes by honestly: his dad is Poseidon, the trident-toting god of the seas, who met mom when the sea god washed up one day in Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina. (The golf, one assumes, is not great on those rocky Aegean isles.)
The film’s setup is a nice way to send the message that kids who have trouble learning traditionally only see things differently; they’re bound to be just as smart as their fellows, or even excel in a different arena. (Columbus’s daughter, who has trouble reading, first turned him onto Riordan’s series.)
In the books, Percy’s reading difficulties aren’t the result of his superhero status: he’s disylexic, and he happens to be a demigod. The movie won’t fool dyslexic kids into thinking they are made that way for a reason, nor should they have to look for one. But if the movie gives a kid confidence, or helps other kids see their troubles sympathetically, let’s have plenty more Percy Jacksons.
Percy’s dyslexia. at any rate, isn’t the only handicap that’s a cover for a mythical nature. His best friend and designated protector, played by Brandon T. Jackson, is a satyr who uses crutches to hide his goat legs; a wheelchair-bound teacher (Pierce Brosnan), who is a centaur tasked with keeping an eye on Percy, soon trades his steel for a horses rear-end.
They can’t protect Percy from a host of fire-breathing, slobbering monsters, all beautifully rendered in CGI, who have been dispatched by Zeus and his brother god to retrieve Zeus’s missing lightning bolt. It’s up to Grover and Percy, soon joined by the lovely young Alexandra Daddario as Athena’s abandoned daughter, to find out who did steal Zeus’s bolt. The trio’s trek into the Underworld (via Las Vegas) will introduce kids who haven’t read the books to the Greek myths. (And just in time: if my 11-year-old and his cohort are any guide, mythology is replacing dinosaurs as geek-chic topic No. 1.)
If special effects aren’t enough to keep grownups entertained, a vampy turn by Uma Thurman as the snake-haired Medusa and a few other winking moments will. Adults should be warned, unless their particular handicap is deafness, that “The Lightning Thief” is loud. While earplugs are an extreme step, they will protect your ears from the string of teen catchphrases masquerading as dialog–and allow you the most fun of all: listening to your Percy Jackson fan, veteran or newly minted, explain the story to you on the way home.