Cast: Walker Scobell, Leah Jeffries, Aryan Simhadri, Azriel Dalman, Glynn Turman, Jason Mantzoukas, Lin Manuel Miranda, Virginia Kull
Director(s): Anders Egstrom, Jet Wilkinson, James Bobin
Writer(s): Daphne Olive, Rick Riordan, Jonathan E. Steinberg, Joe Tracz, Monica Owusu-Breen, Andrew Miller, Craig Silverstein
Available on: Disney+ Hotstar
In a felicitous stroke, Rick Riordan was swayed to pull off another Percy Jackson adaptation, despite the infamous Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief 2010 film, and its subsequent part, that took his venerated multi-million book selling series — a digestible, assimilable recounting of greek mythology coated with teenage slang — and crushed into something even simpler and flashier with chunks of the book sliced out. The casting of teenagers at the cusp of adulthood, presumably an approach to sexify a children’s book series to fish for wide net resonance, had instead, both culled it from the series’ behemoth of a thumping, young fanbase, and induced a charitable shrug among the remaining. (I recommend checking out Riordan’s scathing letter to those who were involved with the making of the film.)
The latest eight-part Disney+ series, made with itching involvement of Riordan (he is a writer and executive producer for the series), registers as more than just a vindictive and earnest correctionary measure to the previously botched attempt. The first four episodes, which accommodate a generous amount of exposition about Greek Mythology’s gods irreverent slant towards their demigod offsprings, and the monsters who want to snuff them out in their eccentric, idiosyncratic ways, is a pleasing, even if a slightly weighty articulation of Riordan’s fictional take on the notorious greek gods.
Percy Jackson (Walker Scobell) has experienced fits of contentious visions since he was young, like rhinoceroses, or centaurs sauntering around New York City in sprawling daylight. He is literally, but also markedly separate from his non-demigod peers, and commiserates with Grover (Aryan Simhadri), who is also at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Percy is unaware Grover is actually a Satyr, whose job is to protect the former from undesirable entities sniffing him out towards disastrous significance. While the show evades droll humour, and adopts a graver tone — perhaps a safe choice to institute its stakes — it's a restoring contrast to the films which obliterated substance for nonsensical glee.
During one confrontation with a bully from his class, where Percy inadvertently pushes her into the fountain, and Alecta (Megan Mullally), a monster makes an appearance to retrieve him for the underworld, a catatonic series of events unfold which lead him to discover that his father is Poseidon. Percy is the forbidden child of one of the big three — Zeus, Poseidon and Hades — who are disallowed to mate with mortals because their children have the potential to accrue inordinate amounts of potency.
After an uncomfortable brush with his abrasive stepfather, and a lengthy conversation with his mother about the truth of his birth, he makes it into the camp for half bloods, but not before his mother is nobbled into Hades’ realm by a minotaur, who Percy heroically takes on, and becomes (in)famous with Ares’ children at the camp after he does. At the camp, he learns that Zeus is under the erroneous, and troubling presumption that Percy has stolen his lightning bolt under the bidding of his father. He plunges onto a double quest with Annabeth (Leah Jeffries) and Grover to rescue his mother from the underworld, and to set the record straight about his innocence.
It feels herculean not to draw parallel with the movie adaptation. Where Chris Columbus characterises Sally Jackson (Catherine Keener in the film), Percy’s mother, to be a hapless victim to a god’s charms and then a passive undertaker of her terrible husband’s incompetency, the series imagines Sally (Viriginia Kull) with a fastidious morally cultivated framework that industriously drives her pursuit to protect her son with clarity and precociousness, even if it means putting up with an appalling man whose smell would unwittingly cast a layer of protection from darker elements that want to have a grab at Percy.
There are yawn-inducing, and rasping chatters about the colour-blind casting, which feel grating in the light of how dexterously the younger cast interprets their respective parts. Scobell’s Percy is less cheeky, less lanky compared to Percy of the books, but he infuses him with a heft, and doesn’t have to resort to exasperated harping of Logan Lerman’s Percy, who seems physically one huff away from a cardiac arrest. Simhadri’s Grover might not punctuate, or puncture the end-of-life stakes quest with his lighthearted rippers, but instead, a flourishing vulnerability and awkward misgivings about his quest teammates not getting along furnish the show with the levity. Leah Jeffries’ Annabeth is an intoxicating mix of cockiness and festering insecurity regarding her relationship with her mother, an exact rendering of the character in the book who drew comfort in her strategic bent even as she navigated a thorny relationship with the source of her power.
Jason Mantzoukas as Dionysus is the perhaps most inspired casting of the series. His reckless unhingedness, especially in contrast with Chiron’s florid and controlled divulgings, already has something sinister about it, even if he chugs alcohol on the side of the Gods. The only creaking choice is Percy’s stepfather, Gabe (Timm Sharp), who has a firmer resemblance to someone from an Adam Sandler comedy rather than a man who would bring his menacing instincts to fruition.
The disclosure of foes, ostensible friendships and allies, and how they figure into Percy’s power-tilting quest, is balanced with a concoction of revelations of their motives just as the events themselves are unfurling into a monstrous clutter of chase, and quick on-the-feet solutions. Instead of being characterised with a jarring hurriedness or messy distorted-ness— an achilles heel most fantasy adaptations scramble and scrimmage against — the pacing is so ponderous that exposition and tangled danger seem ingeniously stitched.
Whether it is an encounter with Echidna (Suzanne Cryer), Medusa (Jessica Parker Kennedy) or Alecta, the scenes deftly double as both radio broadcast of the stakes of this world and the wieldings of pens that are swords, head attires that are invisibility cloaks, and branded shoes from which angel wings sprout - albeit to a self-detrimental motion.
Annabeth, Grover and Percy are finally going to foray into the underworld to meet Hades, and negotiate the release of both Percy’s mother, and the lightning bolt so that peace is restored to Olympus. Before Percy left, he was told by the oracle that someone he considers a friend would betray him.
While the fans are already in the know about how the events will transpire, and who will double-cross Percy, this hero quest, that is a “world defining event” as Percy puts it, still manages to be an edge-of-the-seat comfort watch.