Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson book series is getting a second shot at a live-action life in the new Disney+ series Percy Jackson and The Olympians. The previous attempts starring Logan Lerman in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters saw middling success on the big screen, despite a stellar veteran supporting cast and being launched by director Chris Columbus, whom also notably launched another little teen fantasy film franchise: Harry Potter.
Those films were fine for what they were, but Percy Jackson and The Olympians on Disney+ breathes new life into the characters with a terrific young cast, impressive production values, and sense of importance that was missing from the films. The beats of the early story remain true to the first book’s source material, thanks to Rick Riordan’s heavy involvement in producing and writing episodes of the series, giving it all an extra level of detail and authenticity to the world from the mind behind it.
Percy Jackson’s (Walker Scobell) secret lineage begins to surface after a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City reveals both danger and a new friend/ally in Grover (Aryan Simhadri). Percy and his mom Sally (Virginia Kull) have to leave the city, but before she can reveal all and get Percy to safety, tragedy strikes. With Grover’s help, Percy takes refuge at Camp Half-Blood, a sanctuary for demigod children, where he swears to uncover his family history, all the while making new friends and embarking on a quest across, not only the US, but to completely different realms.
After viewing the first four episodes provided by Disney+, shifting this property from films to an episodic series with a large budget was absolutely the way to go. The story ebbs and flows better in this format, and each episode seems to carry a distinct location and feel. The third member of the Percy Jackson trio, Annabeth (Leah Sava Jeffries), doesn’t even show up in full until the second episode, but the pacing of her introduction was just right.
The young cast are truly great finds and hopefully get the opportunity to mature with these characters like the Harry Potter cast. Walker Scobell stars as Percy and, despite his young age, he commands the screen with the right mix of youthful adventurer and troubled pre-teen energy. Simhadri brings a more grounded personality for Grover in this series when compared to the films. There’s an immediate brotherly friendship with a side of annoyance between Percy and Grover, and it’s great. Jeffries brings a quiet strength to Annabeth early, and the actress expands her range in the character as the episodes progress. Once together, the trio feels very natural as classmates burgeoning into friends/peers.
As mentioned before, the visual effects are excellent but the cinematography is top-notch, allowing the effects to pop, but only when needed. For example: a rainy, tense car chase involving a Minotaur in the first episode keeps the beast mostly cloaked while the camera frantically shows point-of-view shots in and around the car. The lighting and shadow are excellently used to provide both tension and save a few VFX dollars. That doesn’t mean the episodes look cheap – far from it. They all look wonderfully cinematic, but the series seems to know when to pull back and when to let loose.
The last bit that makes this series a blast is the revolving cast of terrific veteran character actors in mythical supporting roles. I wouldn’t dare spoil all of them here, but early appearances like Megan Mullally as teacher/mythical monster Mrs. Dodds/Electo or Jason Mantzoukas as Dionysus/Mr. D are extremely fun to watch and all the talent appears to be having a ball.
The Disney+ episodic incarnation of Percy Jackson and the Olympians expertly walks a tightrope of being silly in the right moments, then giving weight to events others, all the while never feeling cheap in story or production. Second time’s the charm, and this series has some real magic in it – the kind that if it catches, could become a major fan obsession.
Score: 4 out of 5
Percy Jackson and the Olympians debuts December 20 on Disney+ with a two-episode premiere, followed by new episodes weekly.