With the release of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Hollywood’s endless quest for the heir to the Harry Potter throne continues. Luckily for fans of the series, this installment, though far from original, is fun, light and fast-paced enough to both entertain its young target audience and keep parents in tow from falling asleep.
For those who either missed the last Percy Jackson adventure or have forgotten the series’ set-up in the strangely long lapse between this and 2010’s The Lightning Thief, Percy (Logan Lerman) is the teenaged, demigod son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. He resides at Camp Half-Blood (a blatant Harry Potter lift, but honestly, what isn’t in these kinds of movies?) with his friends, all also descended from Greek gods and goddesses.
This time around, Percy and his friends are forced to embark on a quest for the Golden Fleece, located in the fabled Sea of Monsters (that’s the Bermuda Triangle to us mortals), after a magical tree which protects their camp from attack is poisoned. Danger lurks in the form of Luke Castellan (Jake Abel), a scorned son of Hermes determined to destroy Mount Olympus by raising big bad Chronos from the depths of Tartarus.
The film’s beautiful cast helps make all the mythology go down easier. Lerman, so terrific in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, leads the pack with another smoothly charismatic performance. As post-Potter protagonists go, he’s one of the best, immediately likable and actually capable of making more than one expression. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for love interest Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who’s given little to do more than bat her eyelashes and pine after Percy. For a supposed daughter of Athena, she demonstrates a disappointing lack of intelligence, always letting Percy be the one to save the day, and it’s upsetting that a character so strong in the books can never break out of the damsel-in-distress mold for the big-screen adaptation.
The rest of the supporting cast is slightly better. Quippy satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and Percy’s cyclops half-brother Tyson (newcomer Douglas Smith) both deliver much-appreciated comic relief, while Nathan Fillion gets the juiciest guest role as Hermes, smartly recast as a suave businessman. Another new addition is Leven Rambin as Percy’s ultra-competitive rival Clarisse, conceited but oddly endearing. Gone are all of the veteran actors as various Greek gods and figures; only Stanley Tucci puts in an appearance as the acerbic Dionysus. Yet, almost as surprising as their absence is how little they are actually missed. It’s clear that this is Lerman’s show from the get-go, and he wears the mantle of leading man well. No one else is particularly terrific, but none of them are awful either, which is more than can be said for most of these YA adaptations.
A large amount of deviation from Rick Riordan’s source material may anger purists, but most will be entertained by the CG-overload that many of the changes bring. When Percy and his friends face off against all kinds of fearsome beasties, including an impressive mechanical bull, a terrifying scorpion-tailed lion and a whirlpool with teeth, the film comes alive with well-executed action and dazzling visuals.
Another part of what makes Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters work, despite its inescapable lack of originality, is an agreeably quick pace. From the film’s brisk, genuinely exhilarating first act, which involves some eye-catching extreme gymnastics and that aforementioned bull, the action never slows for a second.
With a zippy 107-minute runtime, that’s an entirely good thing. By keeping the characters rapidly leaping from set-piece to set-piece, director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) leaves the audience precious little time to recognize how familiar almost everything in the movie actually is.
As with seemingly every tween-targeted franchise nowadays, Sea of Monsters owes a considerable debt to many better movies, most strikingly Raiders of the Lost Ark. The plot feels unnecessarily recycled, plodding along as if it has a check-list of clichés to get through. Consequently, many of the film’s tropes are too banal to truly excite or entertain, which is a shame considering the filmmakers had boatloads of Greek mythology to draw from. Inexplicably, hardly any made it into the final product. Most of the movie is merely passable, never as extraordinary as the screenwriters wanted it to appear. However, Sea of Monsters is saved by its endless eye candy, refreshingly lightweight tone, and an irrepressible youthful exuberance.
As YA series go, Percy Jackson is more fortunate than most. It boasts an established young star, a substantial literary base and enough visual wow to please almost everyone in its target audience. This sequel is a considerable improvement on its ham-fisted, convoluted predecessor, and smart enough to steer clear of the love triangles and teen angst that often derails these tween adventures. While Sea of Monsters may not be high art, it’s more than serviceable and far better than most of the other meager offerings currently vying for viewers’ attention. Those two factors alone could be enough to sustain the franchise through another few films.
It’s a far cry from the cinematic magic of Harry Potter, but at least Freudenthal knows how to push our buttons. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is diverting entertainment which proves that Percy Jackson, despite its flaws, is perhaps the most deserving successor to that pop-culture juggernaut’s throne.
When its over-the-top climax finally arrives, the movie does start to bow under the weight of its more-hackneyed story elements, but for most of its length, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is harmless fun, visually exciting and breezy enough to both enthrall its tween audience and hold the attention of accompanying adults.