What’s a Kids’ Fantasy Show Without Wonder?

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Saving the planet shouldn’t be easy. But for Percy Jackson, navigating a world in which Greek gods and myths exist in the modern-day United States is simple, as long as you’re up to date on your history. The Disney+ series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which ended last week, follows the protagonist and his friends as they face off against monsters, traps, and public transit on a cross-country quest to retrieve a powerful weapon that’s gone missing. Unfortunately, the show reduces their most fantastical exploits to mere speed bumps. In one scene, a snake-haired Medusa is dispatched (and decapitated) within minutes.

This breezy approach makes for poor television—and a poor adaptation. The original book series of the same name, by Rick Riordan, follows the adventures of half-human, half-god children, or demigods, and is a Gen Z reading staple on par with Harry Potter. The gods themselves are hapless and petty, so it’s up to their children to do, well, everything, as their envoys on Earth. That could sound overly serious, but much of the books’ levity comes from Percy’s frank narration, which places readers in the head of a witty, hyperactive teen suddenly tasked with immense responsibility he could never have anticipated.

The books would seem better suited to television than to film. When 20th Century Fox released its now-infamous movie adaptations of the first two books, The Lightning Thief and Sea of Monsters, in the early 2010s, part of the struggle was condensing the plot to fit a two-hour run time. Crucial moments were skipped, combined, or placed in a completely different order. Riordan himself said that the movies were like “my life’s work going through a meat grinder.”

But the show is an overcorrection—it was so concerned with faithfulness to the books that it left little room for wonder. Over the first season’s eight episodes, the kids—Percy (Walker Scobell) and his friends Annabeth (Leah Jeffries) and Grover (Aryan Simhadri)—react to new obstacles with an odd sort of nonchalance: Of course the woman with garden statues is Medusa; obviously the Lotus Hotel and Casino is a reference to the lotus that trapped Odysseus. Even Percy, to whom all of this is supposedly new, is armed with knowledge from stories his mortal mother told him. The key players seemingly having every answer makes for low-stakes storytelling; worse, it isn’t fun. Part of the joy of inhabiting a young protagonist’s point of view, for children and adults, is the feeling of discovery, which Riordan’s books fuel by deftly weaving ancient tales into modern times. The show’s over-explanation, by contrast, turns colorful characters into mouthpieces for exposition and compelling plots into excuses to move from Point A to Point B.

After the disappointment of the movies, the pressure was on to do the story justice. This seemed possible, especially with the author as a writer and producer on the show. But ultimately, Percy Jackson and the Olympians got in its own way, never shaking the urge to annotate itself. In between the rapid monster fights, the characters mostly talk about their quest and Greek myths, only occasionally mentioning their personal lives. Annabeth, the supposed brains of the operation, seems no smarter than her companions. Percy, impertinent in the books, is here self-serious. Even the friendship between the three leads, which culminates in a group hug in the finale, is underbaked—they saved the world together, but when did they have time to bond?

Kids, the target audience for an adaptation of books for middle schoolers, tend to be pretty savvy. Even if they don’t fully understand a story’s intricacies, they can still enjoy the broad strokes of plot and relate to emotional moments. The books started coming out in the mid-2000s, so the Percy Jackson franchise has adult fans, including me. Children’s television can have appeal across age lines; think of shows such as Bluey, which tackle serious topics and feelings with a healthy dose of whimsy. But while watching Percy Jackson and the Olympians, I found myself growing tired of the lore dumps and wink-wink, nudge-nudge Easter eggs.

There were some amusing moments throughout the show: Percy flosses during an important game of Capture the Flag; Grover sings a song about the merits of group consensus; Annabeth fails to grasp a Wizard of Oz reference. Those scenes, like the books, seem to acknowledge that, even in the middle of intense events, kids are still kids. Although Percy Jackson hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, should it get another chance, I hope it leaves more room for play—for wholly relishing a beloved world and its characters, not just reconstructing them.

Elise Hannum is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.

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