8/06/2013

Review: 'Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters', Starring Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario


After a solid but uninspiring first chapter in the Percy Jackson series, there weren't many who were praying at the altar of the gods for a sequel. Even 20th Century Fox seemed hesitant to continue on telling the adventures of the boy demigod and son of Poseidon, perhaps realizing it can't ride Harry Potter's coattails close enough to match its success. But they've decided to give it another shot with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and rather than building on the established mythological world and gaining momentum for a big payoff, it instead takes one giant step backwards.

It's depressing to watch Logan Lerman, who successfully played a shy introvert in last year's remarkable The Perks of Being a Wallflower, play Percy Jackson who is the least interesting character in his own series. The narrative is pretty upfront about that fact, too, as he's still considered something of a loser despite his successful quest to stop the Lightning Thief. So we see him constantly upstaged by belligerent bully Clarisse (Levin Rambin), the daughter of Ares, and made excuses for by his Scooby pals Grover the satyr (Brandon T. Jackson) and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), his kind of girlfriend. Everybody has a thing they're good at, but Percy is just...Percy, the "one quest wonder".

If only that were true because the journey he undertakes in 'Sea of Monsters' is a lifeless combination of boring characters, dicey CGI, and a stunning inattention to detail. Percy is still hung up on his Daddy issues, appealing to his father Poseidon for guidance and finding no response forthcoming. Despite his fading status as a hero, he's still saddled with a destiny that he can't shake and has no idea how to prepare for. He's like Harry Potter that way, if the boy wizard had no interesting villains and no discernible personality to speak. Percy's home at Camp Half-Blood is protected by a magical barrier powered by a tree that honors Zeus' daughter, Thalia (Paloma Kwiatkowski), who gave up her life years earlier to save her friends. A rampaging metal bull busting through the barrier is the first sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Luke (Jake Abel), the son of Hermes and the titular "Lightning Thief" of the last film, is back and has poisoned the tree, and the only thing that can save it is the Golden Fleece, hidden away in the Bermuda Triangle.

The larger plot involves Luke's attempts to resurrect the titan Chronos and use him to destroy Zeus, the Olympians, and all of Camp Half-Blood. It's really secondary to Percy's ongoing familial problems and lack of self-confidence, with getting a jolt with the sudden appearance of Tyson (Douglas Smith), a cyclops and his half-brother. The sight (pun not intended) of Tyson and his one eye serves as a constant reminder of the poor special effects, but there are other examples during the  rare occasions when the adventurers have to actually fight something. One would think that the departure of mediocre director Chris Columbus would be addition by subtraction, but not when his replacement is Thor Freudenthal, best known for Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Hotel for Dogs. The impact is noticeable immediately, and the messy computer animation proving to be quite the distraction. Even the more inspiring moments, like riding across the oceans atop a rainbow-colored seahorse, have a glaring lack of polish.

While there is a distinct lack of actual monsters despite the title, a lot is jammed into the story that is never fully explained.  The first film was quite clever blending mythological elements into a modern context, but it's clumsily handled now, assuming the ancient myths are familiar to everybody.  A Starbucks serves nectar and is managed by a multi-armed barista, while the blind Graeae, juggling their single eye between them, pop up for a dizzying and incomprehensible moment as cab drivers. In keeping with Freudenthal's usual target audience, a number of simplified moral lessons are imparted that those over the age of five will completely disregard. Some may raise a curious eyebrow at all of the cyclops prejudice rampant throughout the film, but then you'll see that awful CG-eye and forget all about it.

Everything about 'Sea of Monsters' screams afterthought, and it goes beyond the budget and the effects. The once high-powered cast has taken a serious hit, with Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Sean Bean, Uma Thurman, and others moving on. Stanley Tucci bumbles around drunkenly as Dionysus the god of wine, and he may or may not have had an actual drink just to get through this. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will appreciate the presence of Anthony Stewart Head, replacing Brosnan as Percy's mentor, Chiron the centaur. Not that he has anything to do but look awkward with his digital horse legs. Only Nathan Fillion seems to be having any sort of fun as Hermes, delivering the film's one true gem of a line as he laments the cancellation of great TV shows. It's a subject Fillion knows quite intimately. Lerman, looking old enough to graduate college and have a mortgage, doesn't fit in this role anymore. He's grown beyond it, and the same goes for Daddario and Jackson who have moved on to greater things. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters feels like a movie the studio felt obligated to make, and the stars forced to be in. Hopefully now that it's over, Percy Jackson can take its proper place as a cautionary tale about sequels nobody wants.