The following is a review of Episodes 1 and 2 of Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
To start off, let’s address the elephant in the room; as many already know, this is not the first adaptation of Percy Jackson & The Olympians, Rick Riordan’s beloved series of novels centered on a teenage boy who discovers he is the son of a Greek god. The first attempt was a duology of movies spanning the first two novels, one in 2010 and another in 2013, which are strongly disliked by the fandom at large for being poor adaptations of the source material. This is all to say that there is reason to be wary of this reboot by Disney. This critic knows that, as a fan of the novels, being accurate to the books is extremely important. However, if all you need to know before you watch Percy Jackson and the Olympians is if this new series follows the book, the answer is yes. If that’s good enough for you, you should watch it.
If you have not read the novels, then you should do so – they’re amongst the best young adult novels of the 2000’s – but they are not necessary to enjoy this series. The opening monologue is lifted directly from the first lines of the book and the series stays accurate to the essence of the story when it can’t match the novels scene-for-scene. Episode 1, titled “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher” is a great pilot that plunges the audience into Riordan’s magical world within just the first scenes. The introduction to his school life is efficient; we learn Percy is bullied and struggles with standard academia due to his his dyslexia and ADHD, all things lifted directly from the book and visualized effectively. Later, we get a bevy of action scenes that all add or strengthen characterization and plot. How a character reacts to danger tells a lot about them and this series has utilized that characterization tactic very well.
The second episode differs more from the books, but that isn’t a bad thing. It takes what was only world-building in the novels and rounds it out into both world-building and plot progression. We are introduced to many, many new characters and the mainstay of the series, Camp Half-Blood, a summer home for demigod children. It’s hard to put into worlds how something can feel right, but here, Camp Half-Blood feels right. It fits its essence from the novels very well and features great set design from Charlene Parsons and Hamish Purdy.
Walker Scobell as Percy and Aryan Simhadri as best friend/protector Grover are truly believable as friends. For most of the first episode, Percy thinks Grover has betrayed him due to his duplicitous efforts to get Percy to Camp Half-Blood, and the hurt Percy would feel is understandable. He doesn’t want to talk about his hurt, because that’s not the type of person he is, but Scobell tells us all we need to know with his expressions and the way he talks. Simhadri, on the other hand, plays Grover well, bringing an unexpected layer of mistrust to the character. He so effortlessly lies to get Percy kicked out of school, and then seems essentially unapologetic for that. He’s still a likable, goofy friend, but there’s a depth to him that feels more pronounced when seeing it performed compared to just reading it.
The third lead is Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase, a demigod daughter of Athena, who isn’t introduced until the second episode. Percy is action without thought, making Annabeth’s thoughtful, six-steps-ahead attitude a strong foil. While Jeffries isn’t given much screen time in the first episodes, her introduction tells you exactly who she is and how she operates.
It’s harder than one might assume to adapt the novels, as so much of it is dedicated to Percy Jackson’s (Walker Scobell) internal narration, a series of rapid fire thoughts brought on by his Demigod-ADHD brain. While narration can work, and it is used in parts of the episodes, one can imagine how annoying and hard it would be to follow visuals constantly overlaid with a layer of snarky teen boy thoughts. Instead camera movement, framing, sound, and lighting are used to inform us of Percy’s thoughts and feelings.
For example, when he sees his mother, Sally (Virginia Kull), after a bad interaction with his stepdad, things slow down. Soft music starts playing and, for a few seconds, everything seems a bit better. Conversely, when he’s talking to her about the inciting incident at the museum, the music is somber as he explains how his ADHD makes him feel out of place in the world. But, as he begins to talk a little bit about the actual magic he saw – and when mom starts to confirm his thoughts – the score turns from somber into an almost curious questioning instrumental. When Percy’s father is first mentioned, the sound of the sea can be heard rising to a similar volume as the music. It’s almost like the sea itself responded, which is very important foreshadowing toward Percy’s parentage. All of these details add to the show’s storytelling, further elevated by Kull’s performance. The actress brings the right amount of energy and gravitas to the role of Sally Jackson, balancing both protective motherly energy and a bit of a bite, seen when she combats both Percy’s stepdad and, later, an actual Monster.
The show’s first two episodes (the remaining provided to press have been embargoed) will have fans excited to follow this version of Percy Jackson. The changes made for the series make sense and, if the plot goes down like how it does in the novels, these show’s additions will, in fact, strengthen it. It manages to introduce the audience to a world of gods, monsters and magic while keeping everything at a quick pace, sprinkling in enough excitement for the members of the audience who are here to merely see teenagers fight monsters with ancient magic weapons. If the series continues at this pace, we can all soon pretend that this is the only on-screen adaptation of Percy Jackson and that the movies were all a bad dream.
The first two episodes of Percy Jackson and the Olympians premiere Wednesday, December 20, 2023 exclusively on Disney+.