Chris Columbus—Destroyer of Dreams

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Chris Columbus—Destroyer of Dreams

(Was going to post this after seeing this movie in preview, but then decided that would be a bit of a spoiler. Lots of people probably wanted to see this movie as much as I had; no reason to kill their joy early. So I drafted it and set it aside til now, when it appears that Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief will be lucky to gross a hundred million dollars. Effectively, this film franchise is already over.)

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The wretchedness of some bad movies is forgivable.

You know the ones I mean: There is an artistic vision of some kind behind the mess, a storyteller who got terribly lost. And even though the end result is painful to behold, it still feels like it came from someone who cared. About the wrong things, sure; or about a story no one in their right mind could be bothered to give a damn about, maybe—but whatever the case, you sense someone behind the shambles. The unwatchable hot mess that is Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus falls under this category. As does John Boorman’s Zardoz, and Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, and—well, a lot of Boorman. You get the picture.

And then there are movies made by witless mediocrities such as Chris Columbus.

His refrigerated blandness has been with us since the eighties, when he wrote the screenplays for Gremlins, The Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes; later he directed Mrs. Doubtfire and Nine Months and lots of other stuff that is memorable only in how unmemorable the movies were. His work is distinguished by a glib commerciality, a lack of any real sense of the world: Divorced from anything genuine, their only touchstones are other movies.

Even if you don’t know those movies, you know well the bland stamp of his work. Before steamrolling the joy out of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, he brought his leaden touch to the first two installments in the Harry Potter franchise.

I remember well watching the first one in the theater and muttering aloud, “Cut. Cut. CUT, damnit!” when he’d hold long, long shots on Harry’s face as Harry registered wonder. Or joy. Or dismay. Or indigestion. God only knows. I stopped believing in the characters in such moments and started sensing the director behind the camera saying, “Okay, Daniel, now show me SENSE OF WONDER! Come on, raise your eyebrows higher! That’s it! Oh, God, yes!” Overacting in close-up is never the fault of the actor, but of the person who is guiding him.

And I know Chris Columbus is to blame because there are similar moments in Percy Jackson. Not as many and nowhere near as egregious—because the actors here are older, more experienced, doubtless confident enough to shrug off the insecurities of a director who has no idea how real people look and act when they feel emotion.

But the sins of the filmmaking extend beyond even that. The fight scenes are wholly unconvincing. The interplay between the leads feels underscripted and false. The whole enterprise feels undertaken by someone who didn’t have the decency to treat the material as a serious source. Instead, this feels like hackwork plain and simple. The movie’s biggest sin? It’s witless. The novels are very witty—that’s part of the great pleasure of reading them—but this movie is about as clever as an old David and Goliath cartoon. Which is a damn shame, because the series of novels is pretty great.

What about you, what did you all think of it?

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  1. I think you lost me when you dissed THE GOONIES.

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  2. I’ll be honest. I wanted to see this movie bad. Then I heard how horrible it was–but I still wanted to see it because the books were so awesome. How could it possibly be screwed-up, right? Yeah, well, I spent most of the movie laughing–out loud, I admit it–with every overacted moment, every horrid pause…I laughed the whole time, but not for the witty remarks.

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  3. I was astonished that the movie pretty much removed, along with anything that might have made sense of the plot, the gods themselves — no Mr. D., no Hermes, no Ares — and no Clarisse, for goodness sake! I also felt that Columbus fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the book, or didn’t trust it. The Lightning Thief (book) is not an Epic Fantasy Battle, it’s a road trip across the US. This needed to be a road trip movie, and it wasn’t. About the only thing I liked was Percy’s wonderfully bad haircut.

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  4. Never thought I could find someone who gave as bad a review as I did! I was pretty appalled by the movie.

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  5. I’m so with you on this one. I thought the first Harry Potter by Columbus was pretty good but Percy Jackson was so painful to watch. My favorite part of the movie? Percy just saw what he presumed was the death of his mother and was given one line to grieve over it. “My mom is dead? Woah, bummer.” That was IT and that was one of the more minor conceptual problems with the movie.

    I’m also with you on the fight scenes – whoever choreographed them never taught the actors to act natural, you can see them counting in their head, “1, step, 2, step, swing…” So bad. So, so bad.

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  6. I’ve been to about five movies in the last ten years. The reason? The movies in my head are so much better. I wish I could invite you all in there for a feature and popcorn (please don’t drop your gum on my frontal lobe). I am genuinely sorry more people didn’t enjoy L THIEF, the movie. It’s too bad.

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  7. Okay, I have to admit that I haven’t seen the movie, because, well . . . I saw the trailer. And I thought: “Hmmm, this looks appalling. Who on earth directed it?” And that’s when I was reintroduced to the recurring nightmare that is Chris Columbus.

    How is this man still employed? Seriously, if there’s one thing the Harry Potter franchise has taught us, it’s that good movies can come from great books. Put a talented director in charge and books 3, 4, 5 and 6 come alive. The only exceptions are the breathtakingly turgid stage productions masquerading as books 1 and 2. And we all know what those two movies had in common. Yes, CC!

    It’s a crying shame, too, as the Percy Jackson books are fantastic. Now please excuse me while I go attend to my three nieces, who have just seen the movie and had their faith in cinema and literature shattered.

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  8. My nine-year-old son loves the Percy Jackson series. We saw the movie opening night. My son was disappointed with all the errors and omissions in the movie. He thinks the movie would have been great if only they had made it about the book.

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  9. First, The Goonies is awesome.
    Second, I didn’t bother seeing Percy Jackson because of the reviews. It drives me crazy when the spirit of a book isn’t respected.
    My husband did go see it. He had no prior expectation since he never read the books. He described it in the same manner as you did.

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  10. That’s discouraging. I was looking forward to taking my son to see it.

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  11. I just saved the price of a ticket, two hours and what’s left of my illusions regarding literature and cinema. Thank you all.

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  12. I didn’t see Percy Jackson or read him so I have nothing to say on that count. I just wanted to stick up for those Goonies. I loved that movie.

    I also thought Gremlins was pretty clever. They were so gluttonous and lecherous, those gremlins.

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  13. My uncle wrote the movie soundtrack for the Goonies. Actually, he has written several movie soundtracks. I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t comment. But I do like the music. And if I didn’t I say so.

    Love Ms. Doubtfire. She can really kick a soccer ball and get down with a vacuum cleaner.

    Can’t comment on Percy, either. But the trailer looks like something is amiss.

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  14. I’m with Quentin. You hurt my heart, Michael.

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  15. I loved the Goonies, Mrs. Doubtfire, and HP 1, not HP2 so much. I totally agree with the one-line grieving scene (unpardonable) but I’m okay with movies straying from the book to some degree (unavoidable), but what really bummed me out was that CC made Percy and Annabeth so OLD! Totally disregarded the target audience! (unbelievable) And THAT’S why the franchise will die and early death.

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  16. Hated it. HATED it. Hated it, hated it, hated it.

    Um, yeah. I hated it.

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  17. Okay, give us a movie you liked… just for comparison, sort of, kinda, so we get familiar with your sensibilities!

    Haste yee back 😉

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  18. Unfortunately, Hollywood will continue to crap out bad versions of awesome books. Somewhere in the script adaptation the essence of the book is lost. Everyone wants to put their stamp on it – not honor the story. You cannot judge a book by its movie. Thank you Hollywood for another polished turd.

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  19. I was with Michael at the preview event, and I agree with his negative response. Thankfully, we’ve been treated to some great recent adaptations, too, in Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the latter HP films.

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  20. I wrote a review of the Percy Jackson movie on my blog too, and what I found most offensive was the needless changes they (and I include writer Craig Titley) made. My bottom line was: Message to Hollywood, when you find a book that’s so great that you want to make a movie out of it, trust the writer, agent, editor and publisher who put that book on your radar in the first place and do the movie like they did the book. I know some changes are necessary for the change in medium, but the changes made for the Percy Jackson movie were useless.

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  21. Wow. That’s a gutsy post.
    I sometimes want to vent about a book I’ve read, but it always seems that people get so defensive about it. I’m not a book basher, but sometimes a book makes me angry with an unsatisfying ending or the like and I wonder how the heck it got published.
    So to do the same in the movie world, to actually name a director and put blame on him, wow. Ballsy.

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  22. I liked the book, but didn’t love it. But I saw the previews and was amazed at how bad they looked. It doesn’t surprise me that Percy didn’t react to his mom’s death because the commercials make him look like a jerk who reacts to everything with sarcasm. Based on those alone, I assumed they butched the character and decided I wouldn’t be watching.

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  23. Bless you, sir, for speaking the plain truth about Chris Columbus.

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  24. My wife hated this one. I’ve never read the book, but she said it wasn’t anything like it.

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  25. Looks like another great series of books will be ruined on film (I haven’t read the books – yet – but both my kids love them). It may not be as bad as Eragon, and they will probably still make the sequels – unlike Eragon – but it definitely looks like this one is destined for mediocrity.

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  26. I want to kick myself, actually. I should have known better after being bitterly disappointed with the Twilight movies, that this was doomed to disappoint as well. But as an avid reader, I always hope that the movie will be just as good as the one in my head. Like another person on this thread said, the movie in my head is always better. I’ll stick with that.

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