Published Aug 08, 2013Just as he initiated the thematically and structurally similar Harry Potter franchise, Chris Columbus introduced filmgoers to the mythically motivated world of Percy Jackson with broadness and banality. Staying faithful to the material, he added little cinematic panache to The Lightning Thief, relying on literal interpretations of the text and sheer exposition to propel the story towards its climactic conclusion.
With Harry Potter, other directors stepped in for later instalments, adding layers of maturity and complexity to the text, mirroring the maturity and worldly understanding of the young characters. With the second Percy Jackson film, Sea of Monsters, Diary of a Wimpy Kid director Thor Freudenthal actually manages to remove what little edginess Columbus had established, creating an awkwardly contradictory, albeit succinct, world of goofy, unrealistic inanity somewhat akin to the Spy Kids movies, only without the sense of humour. However, considering that the thematic rumblings deal specifically with the concept of mortality, this cutesy, overly twee, dehumanizing approach feels more alienating than edifying.
This tone is present from the outset, with a Camp Half-Blood competition between Percy (Logan Lerman), Poseidon's son, and Clarisse (Leven Rambin), Ares' daughter, turning broadly sarcastic after the presumably heroic Jackson once again loses. She hams it up, making bad jokes about what it must be like to always be in second place, while Percy's entourage, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), weakly defends him.
There's a vague idea about personal fallibility as an instigator for inner ruminations about annihilation anxiety flickering in the periphery, but the focus is instead on the rapid exchange of terribly conceived bon mots and blanket exposition to frame the eventual quest.
The barrier protecting Camp Half-Blood from the array of baddies within the lexicon of Greek Mythology is the spirit of a child warrior that sacrificed herself for the greater good. Early on, her essence, as represented by a giant, magical tree, is wounded by the defiant Luke (Jake Abel), putting the barrier, and her, on death's door. This leaves Clarisse tasked with obtaining the Golden Fleece, which has magical healing properties, from Polyphemus, a Cyclops residing somewhere around Florida.
Percy learns of a prophecy involving himself, the Golden Fleece and the potential fall of Olympus, and he sets out on the same journey with his group and newly discovered half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith), a goofy Cyclops with a tendency to mess up every task he's given (read: more broad comedy).
Just as Luke presumably died in the original, the idea of death as a fluid and inconsistent concept is a perpetual and reiterated theme. Virtually every character dies at one point or another, coming back to life after a magical property is applied, which gives a confusing, almost counter-productive idea of mortality to the intended youth audience. Similarly, Luke's desire to raise Cronos from the grave — a subplot aiding the overblown, surprisingly limp climax — stems from parental digression, being disappointed by his father, Hermes (Nathan Filion), and wanting the Gods to feel the wrath and pain he's suffered as a social misfit.
There's a great deal of darker material here, but Freudenthal treats it as tenuously as possible. It's almost as though he's afraid to imply anything negative, glossing over Luke's rage with a sight gag about two sassy snakes that refuse to talk with an exaggerated hiss. Similarly, while each death is treated with melodrama, there's nothing final or severe about them. Everything is so cartoonish and each character so ill-defined — Tyson literally just repeats, "it's great to have a brother," when not asking ignorant, fish-out-of-water questions — that there's no bigger sense of the human experience, even within the context of a kid's film.
This leaves only the oft-terrible animation and competently assembled action to keep things engaging, which do a serviceable job of entertaining, if only because there's an endless array of sphincter monsters and giant fire Gods getting in the way of Percy Jackson and his band of social rejects.
Viscerally, Sea of Monsteas is moderately engaging, even if some of the visual effects have the same shortcomings as those seen in Blade 2 and Escape from L.A. (Fox)