Percy Jackson and the Olympians isn't a Greek tragedy, but it's not a god-tier Disney Plus show, either

Annabeth, Grover, and Percy look into the distance in Percy Jackson and the Olympians' TV show
Percy Jackson and the Olympians doesn't feel as fantastical as it should. (Image credit: 20th Television/Disney Plus)

Half-bloods, imposing mythical creatures, and kid bullies from the dark side – Percy Jackson & The Olympians, Disney Plus' latest epic tween fantasy owes much to the Harry Potter franchise. Unlike the iconic Wizarding World, though, the Percy Jackson book series instead leans into the classic Greek myths with aplomb.

Adapted from Rick Riordan’s best-selling novels of the same name, the eight-episode TV show co-developed by Riordan and Jonathan E. Steinberg brings to life the epic tale of the titular character once more. This time, he's played enthusiastically by Walker Scobell as a far more age-appropriate 12-year-old boy – compared to the forgettable 2010 Christopher Columbus movie, that is – who dramatically finds out that he’s a demi-god and son to an as-yet-unknown Greek deity.

Where’s the levity, silliness, or laughter that we associate with a bunch of pre-teens?

Perhaps expectedly, the opening episode sets the scene for the big secret (i.e. that Percy is of Greek god descent) to be revealed. On a class trip to a museum – learning about the Greek gods statues, naturally, as he’s named after Perseus – he fights back against the playground bully. That’s when Mrs Dodds (Megan Mullally, clearly relishing the chance to play a villain), a mean-spirited teacher, shows her true colours, and by that I mean reveals that she’s the winged-demon Alecto, who serves Hades, aka Lord of the underworld.

Percy walks into a forest camp in Percy Jackson and the Olympians' Disney Plus series

You're a Half-Blood, Percy! (Image credit: 20th Television/Disney Plus)

Percy gets expelled from school for seemingly (and bizarrely) pushing a girl in a fountain – a ridiculously harsh punishment that doesn't fit the crime, in my view – before later becoming upset when he finds out it was best friend Grover (Aryan Simhadri) who appeared to throw him under the bus. Cue Percy’s benevolent mom Sally Jackson (Virginia Kull) letting him in on his immortal heritage. Unfortunately for Percy, now he has to pack up to go and live in Camp Half-Blood, a location where the children of other supreme beings reside.

Frankly, that’s a lot of ground covered the premiere's first 30 minutes, but that’s because there’s plenty of source material that a) needs explaining before the show can take flight, and b) because, as a TV adaptation, there's more room to explore this expository content. Columbus' The Lightning Thief film and its successor – Thor Fruedenthal's Sea of Monsters – overlooked large swathes of Riordan's texts, which didn't aid their cause in being viewed as worthy adaptations of said novels.

Here, though, the pacing is pleasingly tight and, despite the amount of ground it needs to cover, doesn’t labour for the most part. Shocking as it might be to find out you’re only half human and that there's a whole netherworld of beasts that control life on Earth, Percy gamely gets on with it all, too, which helps things keep ticking over narratively.

Satyr stands in the rain looking at someone off-screen in Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson's Disney Plus show is packed with mythological creatures. (Image credit: 20th Television/Disney Plus)

Speaking of beasts (of which there are many), the show excels with its fantastical CGI creatures built upon visual effects. Whether that’s half-animal, half-human creatures like Chiron the centaur (Glynn Turman) and Grover, who – spoiler alert – is a mythical Greek creature known as a satyr, trots along on goat-esque legs, or fearsome monsters like the mighty minotaur or bat-winged Furies, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is satisfyingly packed to the rafters with fan-favorite and believable human-animal hybrids.

Scobell’s depiction of a wide-eyed Percy is near-perfect casting

What is evidently missing, however, is some much-needed humour as, without it, all the drama is very po-faced. 

The series' young cast – including Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase and Charlie Bushnell as Luke Castellan – all step up to their challenging roles well, but when The Olympians' main storyline – that being a mission to return Zeus’ thunderbolt to him – actually begins, I can’t help but feel Scobel and company are let down by the serious tonality of the scripts.

Grover, Annabeth, and Percy stand in a foggy forest in Percy Jackson and the Olympians' TV series

Percy Jackson and the Olympians gets lost in the narrative fog. (Image credit: 20th Television/Disney Plus)

Where’s the levity, silliness, or laughter that we associate with a bunch of pre-teens, especially considering the bizarre situation they find themselves in? The camp setting should be fertile ground to explore this a little but, save for a moment where Percy flosses on a rock (not the humor I had in mind, but it's fine), the show shies away from this.

Even in Harry Potter's darkest moments of JK Rowling’s opus, Harry, Hermione, and Ron were always given room to engage in some japes, thus rounding them out as characters with multiple facets to their personas and a camaraderie we can all relate to – elements that are sorely lacking between Percy, Grover, and Annabeth. It’s a joy, then, to see the witty and wisecracking Jason Mantzoukas deliver some much-needed comical interludes as sardonic, beer-swilling camp director Dionysus, aka Mr D.

Mantzoukas' star power isn't a rarity among Percy Jackson's cast. It was a welcome surprise to see the popular Lin Manuel Miranda pop up as messenger of the gods Hermes, who is a literal delivery guy – look at that, the show's writers are capable of jokey winks! Having only seen the first four episodes, I haven’t yet had the chance to encounter Jay Duplass as Hades, Toby Stephens as god of the sea Poseidon, or the late Lance Reddick – in what's likely to be his final role – as Zeus among others. Still, the draw of seeing such esteemed actors, combined with whatever wild VFX has been employed for their mythical character transformations, will keep me watching The Olympians through to the end of its run on one of the world's best streaming services.

My verdict

Turning a much-loved fantasy book series into a TV show needs to cast a spell with its storytelling and world-building, as well as a captivating essence that must run though the (half-)blood of its main characters.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians' literal world-building is indeed impressive, with its rich mythos (underscored by its terrific ancient Greek representation), detailed cinematography, and real-world settings as a backdrop to the expansive storyline – to my surprise, much of this was filmed in British Columbia, which I’m now adding to my vacation wish-list.

Unfortunately, everything else feels oddly flat, making it unlikely that The Olympians will make it onto our best Disney Plus shows list. That's likely down to the dramatic weight given to the seriousness of its no-less epic adventure, which seems to forget the kids at the heart of its story. An occasionally lighter focus, with sprinkles of humour laced throughout, would've acted as a smart counterpoint to the main plot's darker components.

Scobell’s depiction of a wide-eyed Percy, who learns to find his inner strength, is near-perfect casting, as are his young supporting castmates, and it’s fun to see the often demonic transformations of other more well-known faces in Hollywood in Disney's watchable, albeit slightly over-serious TV adaptation.

As 2023's flagship festive offering on Disney Plus – the first two episodes arrive on December 20 (episode 1 will also be viewable on Hulu in the US) – Disney will have pinned high hopes on Percy Jackson and the Olympians be must-see holiday viewing for viewers. Okay, it'll likely be received well by general audiences, given the immense popularity of the books. But, whether its translation from page to screen means it'll have enough fuel to keep viewers around until its finale is in the hands of the gods now.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians debuts on Wednesday, December 20. New episodes air weekly until the finale on January 31, 2024.

Laura Martin
Freelance Writer

Laura Martin is an entertainment journalist who covers TV, film, and music. She's written for numerous big publications, including TechRadar, Esquire, BBC Culture, The Guardian, and The i newspaper. Her favourite stories usually involve prestige TV drama, reality TV, or true-life documentaries. Basically, the more obscure, the better!

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