Disney+’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is a nice way to explore Greek mythology with the kiddos, in a form that parents may not get into on their own. Based on the book series of the same name, it opens with Percy Jackson (Walker Scobell) in a set-up for typical pre-teen underdog story. He’s an outcast at school, struggling with bullying and what he initially deems as hallucinations. As his troubled childhood transforms into the stuff of myth (literally), he’s joined by a cast of other young actors, including Aryan Simhadri as Grover Underwood, Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase, and Charlie Bushnell as Luke Castellan. They’re all likable and charismatic, distinct in their mannerisms and personalities. Adults may find their acting a bit wooden at first, akin to all those Nickelodeon series that spawned the last decade’s pop stars. But they warm up eventually, getting more comfortable in front of the camera while keeping their charming naivete.
From there, viewers should expect a show that adheres to the tween television form. For example, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” modulates between warm, network-style lighting (everyone looks great!) to overly dark action sequences (can you follow what’s happening without turning up the brightness on your screen?). It’s not inspiring stuff but the aesthetic gets more enjoyable with the arrival of mythological creatures: a subtle set of horns here, a magic baseball cap there. We’re not talking Guillermo del Toro-level monsters but pretty and fun creatures, worth every penny Disney spent on them.
With today’s television conventions intact, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” has the chance to play with the set of Greek myths so many of us learn in school. Percy is named after Perseus (get it?) and how exactly P. Jackson can exist in a world where the original Perseus’ great deeds are immortalized in museums while also re-living them, does not make much sense. For example, did the original Perseus slay Medusa or not? If so, how is she alive to meet our Percy and his friends again? It’s better not to worry about it.
So while “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” doesn’t have much to add in terms of critically examining the mythology it draws from (unlike, say Madeline Miller’s fabulous novels Circe and The Song of Achilles), there’s still plenty of joy in revisiting these stories. For example, the casting of Jason Mantzoukas as Dionysus is the stuff of the Gods. Even if Mantzoukas is not given much to do in the first four episodes made available to critics, the possibility for his debauchery is there. Plus, looking for your favorite monsters, gods, creatures, and references is quite entertaining. Anticipating how the show will portray them and set them in the modern era is half the joy of watching this one as a grown up.
“Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is also strong when plumbing the emotional state of being half-human, half-God. For one, it cleverly matches its “half-blood” characters’ feelings of uncertain identity with middle-grade tropes. The show asking us to ponder what it would be like to have an absent, mercurial all-powerful parent is its smartest addition to the Greek canon. Percy is angry at his absent Dad and willing to incur the missing patriarch’s wrath. But he’s not the only demigod in this cast of characters, so we also get to see other reactions, notably Annabeth, revering and defending her mother Athena.
The show also lays out the elements of a “hero’s quest” in an engaging way, transforming what could feel like a lesson in English class to a set of universe-enriching rules. It game-ifies a literary theory in a way that grown-ups can ponder, and kids can eat up.
The result of these various elements is a nice enough way to explore Greek mythology and perhaps idle away some hours over the winter school break. “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” probably won’t be the next big thing, but enough kids will enjoy it, and maybe even learn a bit along the way.
Four episodes screened for review. Premieres on Disney+ today.