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Percy Jackson and the Olympians is incredibly by the book

For better and for worse

Percy stands on a rock, his back to the viewer, wearing an orange Camp Half-Blood shirt Photo: David Bukach/Disney
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

It’s been over 10 years since the infamous Percy Jackson & the Olympians movie broke hearts by inexplicably aging the cast and warping the novel, and fans of Rick Riordan’s beloved book series have eagerly been waiting for sweet vindication.

The creators behind the Disney Plus series have made a huge promise: an adaptation the fans of the franchise — of which there are very many, who picked up the books when they first came out in 2005 or fell in love with the world somewhere in the past 18 years — will love, one backed by the author.

Judging by the first two episodes, Disney Plus’ Percy Jackson and the Olympians does deliver on that promise of recreating the plotline of the book, almost beat by beat. With a stellar cast bringing the cherished characters to life, it seems like a dream come true for Percy Jackson fans. It’s an adaptation that takes its source material seriously — and that just might be its biggest fault.

[Ed. note: This review contains some spoilers for Percy Jackson and the Olympians the show, as well as the book series.]

Percy Jackson (Tyler Scobell) standing with his Camp Half-blood shirt on Photo: David Bukach/Disney

Like the first book of the series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians follows Percy Jackson, a troubled middle school student who learns that all the Greek myths he grew up hearing are real, and that his mysterious absent father is actually one of those gods. The first two episodes of the show get Percy to Camp Half-Blood, setting up everything for the eventual cross-country quest that makes up the first entry of the book series. Since the central story is strong, following it beat for beat means the show will have a solid foundation. Because the series seems designed to trust its fans fully, some of the exposition feels like it’s missing, and viewers unfamiliar with the nuances of the world might be trying to put together the pieces.

Luckily, most of those pieces just come from the classic canon of Greek mythology, so putting them together isn’t that hard. As for the quest itself, it’s familiar in a good way — you can’t go wrong with a search for a missing item centered around a young hero wanting to save his mom while figuring out who he is in this new fantastical world!

What really anchors that story, though, is how great the three young actors are. Walker Scobell captures Percy in all his snarkiness, but also his unflinching devotion to the people he cares about. Aryan Simhadri does a phenomenal job with Grover, a character that could simply be comedic relief, but in this version gets a deep vulnerability and almost awkward earnestness. We don’t see much of Leah Jeffries’ Annabeth in the first two episodes, but in those brief scenes she already conveys the character’s quiet strength. The side characters — like Clarisse (Dior Goodjohn), one of Percy’s bullies at camp, and Hermes cabin leader Luke (Charlie Bushnell) — are also dynamic and help make the whole camp and its inhabitants feel alive even in our very brief window to them.

Grover in the rain Photo: David Bukach/Disney
Annabeth leaning in a door frame Photo: David Bukach/Disney

The show is deeply faithful and takes the story seriously — but maybe to a fault. If there is one glaring flaw in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, it is that it doesn’t feel very fun. When so much of the books’ appeal was their buoyant tone, that feels particularly jarring. The books were told from Percy’s first-person perspective, a very funny and goofy narrator with a zinger for every situation. TV Percy does make snarky asides, but because what we’re seeing on screen isn’t filtered through his point of view, it loses that particular glee of his, the wonder that extends to the rest of the world. We’re supposed to fall in love with this world of gods and monsters, despite all the dangers. But even though the camp is lovingly rendered down to the last cabin floorboard, that wonder is missing.

At least, in the first two episodes, it is. With six more episodes to go, that could change, especially as Percy and his friends venture outside of New York and see more of the world. This somber, more serious tone is a perk for a certain subset of fans, though. Their beloved series is being taken seriously, finally elevated beyond just another middle-grade fantasy adventure story. The stakes are high and the show emphasizes that danger, especially since the kids are, well, kids and not in their early 20s. I’m sold on the stakes, but what I’m missing — at least initially — is the magic that makes the world so inviting despite all the monsters that want to kill you. Hopefully, the next few episodes will expand upon that, introduce newcomers to what makes the series special, and remind fans just why they fell in love with this world in the first place.

The first two episodes of Percy Jackson and the Olympians hit Disney Plus on Dec. 20, with new episodes dropping on Wednesdays.