It may surprise some to know that a sequel to 2010's Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief actually exists, but a hefty overseas box office made it inevitable. In Fox's Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, the story of a well-meaning scion of Poseidon (Logan Lerman) continues as he learns about his godly powers to save a woodland setting that tries its hardest not to remind audiences of Hogwarts.
And that may be the key problem with the film: We’ve seen way too much of this before. Percy's friend Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) may use a tablet instead of musty old books, but she feels like Hermione in a couple of key ways. The primary antagonist would like to be Draco Malfoy, but for reasons I'll get into later, he never quite rises to that level.
In director Thor Freudenthal’s adaptation of Rick Riordan’s bestselling fantasy novel, Percy is introduced to his half-brother Tyson. At first, he's happy to have family, but reconsiders his position once he sees that Tyson is a Cyclops. But before Percy and Tyson can engage in Parent Tra- like antics at Camp Half-Blood, an enormous bronze bull attacks, and the magical tree that protects the camp is mortally wounded by outcast Luke Castellan (Jack Abel). Discovering the tree has been poisoned, camp directors Chiron and Dionysus -- called "Mr. D" throughout the film -- dispatch their best to recover the Golden Fleece, the only magical item that can heal the tree.
Soon after, Percy, Annabeth, Tracy and their satyr pal Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) head out on their own quest to recover the Fleece.
The tropes will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1980s, when the adventure flick was king. As in those movies, Sea of Monsters operates in a video game-style level-progression structure. I don't want to call it tedious, but it's pretty close. Plot-wise, there are no surprises, as every twist and turn is recognizable from a hundred other similar stories. Granted, that’s a problem primarily for those raised on a diet of adventure movies; I noted many children in the audience enjoying it, even gasping in moments meant to create tension.
But while the plot failed to surprise, there were a handful of elements that left me smiling. First and foremost is the characterization of Tyson: As played by Douglas Smith, he isn’t a grim, broody monster, but something of a hayseed, minus a broad accent. He's awkward, but always cheerful and happy to be on the adventure. He enjoys being with kids his own age for the first time in his life and displays a legitimate awe and astonishment in discovering the wider world. These days, even in kids’ movies, characters must be blasé about the world. Tyson is anything but that, and a pleasure to watch. Special credit should also be given to the effects team for making his eye pretty seamless.
Similarly, the more monstrous creature effects are well-realized, from the bronze bull to the full-bred Cyclops the group encounters. There's pizzazz and flair, even in purely CG creatures like a seahorse the group rides; an encounter with Charybdis is also entertaining. The Cyclops sequence appears to use every available trick -- from CG to practical effects -- to create what I consider the best action sequence in the entire film.
It's just a shame this island of clever craft is adrift in an ocean of halfhearted teen angst. As I alluded to earlier, the primary antagonist, Luke, fails to become a direct parallel to Draco Malfoy because his scenes are dead on arrival. Any time Luke or his comrades appear, they stand at attention while dressed all in black and spout the most obvious teen-villain dialogue. They come off like refugees from The Covenan, and it feels at odds with the lighter tone the movie is otherwise successful at striking. I suppose there’s some irony in that the more serious scenes feel dopey and the dopier scenes have weight to them.
The best example of this is Nathan Fillion's all-too-brief appearance as Hermes: The actor brings his effortless charm to what could be a campy cameo. Indeed, the sequence has some goofball elements, but Fillion raises the material and manages to find some pathos in it as Hermes, Luke's father, admits he regrets not being the best parent. It really runs the gamut of what a screenwriter, in this case Marc Guggenheim, and an actor of Fillion's talents can do with the messenger of the gods in a children's adventure film.
As with the Cyclops confrontation and even the final battle, I just wish more of the film had found this balance of concerns.
But, at the same time, I have to give Guggenheim credit for not littering the film with "topical" gag lines meant to illicit chuckles from older viewers. There might be a couple, but they are tied to the movie's universe, such as the place where Percy and the gang find Hermes, and integrated well enough into the flow of the movie. The shame in it, though, is that he never found a way to develop the absentee-parent theme into a satisfying element for the grown-ups. It is touched upon, but never really gets resolved. I suppose it may get more focus in a subsequent Percy Jackson film.
So while kids may enjoy Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, it is not an entertaining family movie with the sort of repeat appeal the Harry Potter series -- yes, even Chamber of Secrets -- provide. Although well-crafted, its world is not as well-realized and its characters not as appealing to adults. These key elements are essential to great family movies, but maybe they'll get it worked out in time for Percy Jackson: The Titan’s Curse.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters opens Wednesday.