Uma Thurman with snakes for hair and a killer stare is almost enough on her own to make "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" worth seeing.
Throw in the absurdity of former James Bond smoothie Pierce Brosnan, now put out to stud as a mythical centaur with a horse's rump, and this latest supplicant for the Harry Potter fantasy crowd has two decent elements in its favor.
The trouble with this return to youth fantasy by director Chris Columbus, who made the first two "Harry Potter" flicks, is that it's more a list of ingredients than a movie-magic potion to enjoy from start to finish.
Thurman's few menacing minutes are great, Brosnan's horseplay is campily cute, Rosario Dawson's turn as the Greek god of the underworld's bored, hot, randy wife spices up the movie's otherwise ho-hum action climax.
For every worthwhile moment in this adventure about modern teen heroes bred by the Olympian gods, there's a clunker that merely fills up time, or worse, wastes it.
Based on the first installment in the five-book series by Rick Riordan, "Percy Jackson" stars Logan Lerman in the title role, who was 12 in the novel, 17 on screen as Hollywood seeks to expand the audience to older youths.
Percy's not as bereft of parents as Harry Potter, living with his doting mom (Catherine Keener) and his contemptible stepfather (Joe Pantoliano). But the teen matches the Harry formula for misfit-y, outsider-y youth who's not sure what he's doing in this world of mortals.
As creatures from ancient mythology start popping up in his life — a minotaur here, a fire-breathing hydra there — Percy discovers he's a demigod, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), ruler of the sea.
Poseidon's brother, big boss god Zeus (Sean Bean), is ticked off because Percy is the prime suspect in the theft of his prize lightning bolt. Zeus lays down the law — the lightning bolt must be returned in 14 days, or the gods of Olympus are going to war, with puny humans lined up to become collateral damage.
To prove his innocence, recover the bolt and save his abducted mom from the clutches of Hades (Steve Coogan) in the underworld, Percy sets off on a quest, accompanied by school chum Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) — who turns out to be a satyr, part-man, part-goat — and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), a demigod who's the daughter of Athena, goddess of wisdom.
"This is a lot to process," Percy notes, and the fitful movies shows it.
Director Columbus meanders from episode to episode, from Percy in Rocky Balboa training mode under the guidance of centaur Brosnan, to a Vegas layover where our threesome of heroes are lulled into limbo among the lotus eaters, to the fiery furnace of hell (location, just below Hollywood) and the heights of Olympus (location, just above the Empire State Building).
The fight sequences are OK, the generous helping of computer-generated imagery is fine, the wisecracking camaraderie among Percy, Grover and Annabeth is passable, though they're no match for Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Potter adventures.
The movie shines only when Thurman's snake-headed Medusa, with a glare that turns people to stone, slithers wickedly into the story.
Thurman is gorgeous even with reptiles wriggling on her scalp, and her quiet malice in the comparatively low-key segment is more memorable than all the movie's loud, blustery action moments combined.
Columbus rumbles up plenty of sound (and Furies). But where there's thunder, there should be lightning, and "Percy Jackson" simply lacks the spark.
"Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language. Running time: 119 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.