Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Demigods and Monsters: PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS


The quickest way to communicate the feeling of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is to call it a Harry Potter film with half the budget, simpler plotting, less investment in nuanced characters, and on a smaller scale. The second in a popular series of children’s novels by the amiable Rick Riordan, this movie follows 2010’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief in adapting the adventures of Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), demigod son of Poseidon, student at Camp Half-Blood, and the Chosen One of the story’s mythology. Circumstances conspire to send him off on adventures to save their magical world with the help of his two friends, a scared-but-courageous boy (Brandon T. Jackson) and a bookish, intelligent girl (Alexandra Daddario). (Sound familiar?) This movie finds Jackson on a quest that leads a group of his demigod friends into contact with a small collection of appealingly fake CGI monsters including a clockwork bull, a furry cat thing with a scorpion tail, and a deep sea Sarlacc, among others. We only see one at a time, of course. They don’t have Harry Potter money to spend.

There is nothing so wrong with Sea of Monsters that I can’t say they didn’t try, but there’s nothing so right that it’s easy to like. It certainly brings the monsters, bland and unconvincing though they are. The plot puts Camp Half-Blood, which is visually uninspired and feels as interesting and tiny an environment as an especially modest summer camp, in danger after Luke (Jake Abel), a villain from the previous feature, breaks through a magical protective force field by poisoning the tree from which it emanates. The leader of the camp (Anthony Stewart Head taking over for Pierce Brosnan as the top half of a centaur) decides to send the best demigod student (Leven Rambin) after the Golden Fleece, which we’re told will heal the tree. But Percy’s clued into a prophecy that makes him think he should be the one to find it, so off our main characters go – new character, a teen Cyclops (Douglas Smith), in tow – traipsing through simple secondary quests (find this God, use that Olympian object, escape this trap) that eventually lead them into combat over the object they so desperately need. Along the way, they’re constantly explaining Greek mythology to each other. You’d think these demigods would’ve learned something about it at that camp, but at least one of them has an app for that.

The movie is standard derivative fantasy creature feature stuff, but it’s all so chintzy, simplistic, and flatly expositional that it was hard for me to find much of a reason to get invested in the fantastical (but sadly none too fantastic) happenings unfolding on screen. I appreciated director Thor Freudenthal (of Hotel for Dogs and the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie) taking such a brightly colored approach with calm camera work and unashamed embrace of the material’s cornball, bargain basement blockbuster mythos. I mean, someone has to be making this generation’s Beastmaster or something, right? The kids around me in the surprisingly packed showing last night seemed to enjoy themselves, some gasping in recognition at characters I barely recognized from the first film and giggling at some of the mildly amusing one-liners. There was even one kid who loudly exclaimed “It’s Castle!” when Nathan Fillion turned up in one scene playing Hermes. Fillion’s always a delight, here even getting a slightly amusing wink to his cult classic TV show Firefly’s gone-too-soon status, but he’s out of the picture before you can say “cameo.”

Speaking of welcome presences, Stanley Tucci pops up as a sad and distracted Dionysus who speaks exposition and has the kind of not-as-witty-as-the-screenplay-thinks dialogue that only someone like Stanley Tucci could make palatable. But that’s also a role that only floats around the margins of the movie. For the most part, we’re stuck with the talented young actors in half-convincing scenes of Gods and monsters. As written by screenwriter Marc Guggenheim, they are nothing parts, simply one-note characterizations: conflicted hero, comedic relief, sympathetic tag-along, smarty-pants, good-hearted rival, wise mentor, and snarling villain. (Maybe the books, unread by me, are better in that regard.) It doesn’t help that someone left a lot of dead air around every line reading, as if the characters are patiently waiting for each other to stop talking before chiming in. Even an early scene in which one character interrupts another feels off. No one on screen seems to display much energy or enthusiasm, but maybe I was just projecting my own feelings on that point. I went into this sequel neither resenting nor remembering much about Percy Jackson the first and left in much the same state of mind about the second.

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