Film Review: ‘Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters’

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Modern-day update of Greek mythology provides an epic showcase for mediocre CGI and slapdash screenwriting

Three years after his last underwhelming adventure, the half-blood son of Poseidon returns to bastardize Greek mythology once again in “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” an epic showcase for mediocre CGI and slapdash screenwriting as the franchise ignominiously passes from “Harry Potter” helmer Chris Columbus to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” director Thor Freudenthal. Though this copycat franchise — about a camp where the gods’ teenage spawn learn to harness their powers — is still chasing the coattails of its wizard-world cousin, Fox’s minimal Stateside marketing push proves the studio is focused more on overseas returns, where the original earned nearly $138 million.

Looking old enough to be thinking about college, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is still horsing around with centaurs and satyrs at Camp Half-Blood, where he has developed a rivalry with hyper-competitive Clarisse (Leven Rambin), clearly the heir to some of war god Ares’ more combative qualities. The hokey camp is protected from outside threats by a magical tree that Zeus created from the corpse of his fallen daughter Thalia (Paloma Kwiatkowski) just outside its gates — an all-too-typical example of putatively classic storytelling updated to look wrong-headedly contemporary onscreen, courtesy of TV-quality visual effects.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the Percy Jackson enterprise (especially for those hunting for the next Harry Potter) is how little care the filmmakers take in trying to make this young-adult tale feel timeless. Instead of telling a story that will hold up even a few years down the road, each installment takes age-old mythology and awkwardly pegs it to the moment, all but guaranteeing that it will seem outdated by the time the next sequel rolls around. Here, Percy’s telescoping sword already feels outdated, as does the movie’s villain, wayward demigod Luke (Jake Abel), the “lightning thief” Percy dealt with in the first movie.

The plot involves Luke’s attempts to summon Kronos and use the angry Titan (who looks like a videogame version of “Legend’s” Lord of Darkness) to destroy Olympus — a scheme that mistakenly assumes that whoever resurrects Kronos can control him. One of the pic’s rare moments of inspiration comes in detailing Kronos’ backstory, presented in an impressive sequence in which Percy perceives a stained-glass window come to life (not in the freaky “Young Sherlock Holmes” sense, but as an elegant standalone animated interlude).

Otherwise, the overall vibe suggests “Xena: Warrior Princess” as a Nickelodeon special, as Freudenthal encourages the kind of clownish acting normally found on kiddie TV. Lerman seems especially awkward in this context, having proven himself capable of far more serious and convincing performances elsewhere (including last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), and already transitioning from his boyish looks to the face he’ll have in his 30s. The movie positions him as a lost kid seeking answers about his identity and fate from an unseen father, but he doesn’t appear nearly as young as his questions sound (“Ever felt that everything you’ve ever done is all just luck or something?” he asks a nearby lake, hoping Poseidon will answer).

Percy’s already delicate self-esteem is thrown topsy-turvy with the arrival of Tyson (“Big Love’s” Douglas Smith), son of Poseidon and a sea nymph, which makes this gangly new arrival to Camp Half-Blood his half-brother — and a Cyclops to boot. Of all the sketchy special effects in the film, none is more off-putting than Tyson’s lone eye, which he mercifully covers with sunglasses for long stretches. That makes at least one character who doesn’t have to suffer through 3D conversions of visually mediocre movies. The pic has better luck updating various other mythical monsters, ranging from the fire-breathing Colchis Bull to fearsome sea creature Charybdis (which looks like the aquatic version of the Sarlacc pit).

Still, “Sea of Monsters” seems incapable of finding elegant ways to introduce these CG attractions into the story and instead comes across like a lazy bedtime story the narrator seems to be making up as he goes. It’s enough to make Homer hang his head as the episodic film stumbles from one corny setup to the next, operating on two shaky assumptions: first, that audiences remember the basics of mythology, and second, that they’ll find it clever when the film name-drops classic characters in silly new situations. (Circe’s island becomes an amusement park, the eponymous “Sea of Monsters” is revealed to be the gods’ name for the Bermuda Triangle, and so on.)

It’s easy to forget this is a dead religion that novelist Rick Riordan and screenwriter Marc Guggenheim are mangling to fit the modern world, though their flip treatment of the underlying legends begs the question how audiences might react if they attempted the same CliffsNotes-style riff on characters from the Old Testament or the Quran. Whereas the tale might have demonstrated the immortal appeal of Greek mythology, it mostly just exploits the fact that its target audience is still being forced to memorize the gods’ exploits in grammar school, serving up a quest that’s modestly more entertaining than doing homework while completely missing the point about nearly everything it depicts.

Film Review: 'Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Aug. 1, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation in association with TSG Entertainment of a Sunswept Entertainment/1492 Pictures production. Produced by Karen Rosenfelt, Michael Barnathan. Executive producers, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Mark Morgan, Guy Oseary, Greg Mooradian. Co-producer, Bill Bannerman.

Crew

Directed by Thor Freudenthal. Screenplay, Marc Guggenheim, based on the novel by Rick Riordan. Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen, 3D), Shelly Johnson; editor, Mark Goldblatt; music, Andrew Lockington; music supervisor, Julia Michels; production design, Claude Pare; supervising art director, Helen Jarvis; art directors, Dan Hermansen, Kirsten Franson; set decorator, Shane "Perro" Vieau; costume designer, Monique Prudhomme; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Michael McGee; sound designers, Elliott Koretz, Ai-Ling Lee; supervising sound editor, Koretz; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; special effects coordinator, Cameron Waldbauer; visual effects supervisor, Dan Kaufman; visual effects producer, Steve Dubin; visual effects, Rhythm & Hues Studios, MPC, Prana Animation Studios, the Embassy, Scanline VFX, Custom Film Effects, EFILM, Factory VFX; special makeup effects, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Jr.; stereoscopic supervisor, Sean Santiago; stunt coordinators, Scott Ateah, Randy Hall, Garvin Cross; associate producer, Jeffrey Harlacker; assistant director, Jim Brebner; second unit directors, Gregg Smrz, Bill Bannerman; second unit camera, Roger Vernon, Dave Norris; casting, Alyssa Weisberg; Canadian casting, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter.

With

Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Abel, Douglas Smith, Leven Rambin, Nathan Fillion, Anthony Stewart Head, Stanley Tucci, Mary Birdsong, Yvette Nicole Brown, Missi Pyle, Paloma Kwiatkowski.

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  1. Sarah says:

    I absolutely LOVE the Percy Jackson series, and I thought that the Sea of Monsters was OK. Most of the things that happened in the book happened in the movie, just differently: e.g. They get gifts from Hermes, Grover gets kidnapped, Tyson “dies”, and then comes to save the day, Clarisse is the one to bring back the golden fleece, etc. However, they did leave out some important events that were some of my favorites in the book. Percy and Annabeth never went to Circe’s island, and they never passed the sirens, which I especially thought was something the film really skipped over. (Although this isn’t saying much at all,) it followed the book more closely than the previous film, The Lightning Thief.

  2. MagnetEdge says:

    The movie wasn’t that bad, it was just different from its book counterpart. It would’ve made a good comedy movie, but apparently, that isn’t the case. They tried to cover up for their inability to convey the serious sides of the story with jokes, and I think that’s what made the film so dull and light. But alas, this movie was never meant for young adults and above. It was obviously aimed for children. And I think it did a splendid job at it. After all, the first movie was the reason why I decided to read the books, and was horrified when I found out how bad the film adaptation was. But it did get me in the franchise.

  3. idishi6 says:

    Just saw the movie. I am a huge fan of the books and I was utterly disappointed with the lack of essence in the films. It was a hodge podge of information taken from five books and mixed altogether in one film that half the movie made little sense. Trust me, the books are well-written, the characters are more dynamic, and the myth/modern stuff is explained quite substantially.

    Both films were bad because they went against so much of the underlying themes. I hope future book adaptations will reconsider changing or condensing stories because historically, that makes a big mess.

  4. xerxes says:

    Fan girl talking here. I actually enjoyed the movie AND I have read the books..thrice. Some of the things you pointed out were true in a sense but you have to remember that the series is FICTION. If you’re not happy with the way Rick wrote it then why not write your own? If your not cool with the movie, why not direct/produce your own and we’ll see how that goes? Just try to enjoy the movie as it is. Sheesh.

  5. nici says:

    Listen some of us haven’t even seen this movie yet thanks for a bad review I hope that some day you will like a movie. Stop wasting our time reading a story that is much more boring.

  6. Spencer Hastings says:

    As I cannot argue with anything you’ve said since I don’t get to see it until tomorrow I think you underestimate how well this movie will do. Just wait.

  7. Contessa46 says:

    The crappy CGI is compliments of India; way to go Fox! Bring back the jobs to Hollywood you greedy bastards and then you will see outstanding CGI!

  8. Jenny Jordan says:

    My goodness, you can almost read this tool’s film-school-drop-out background in this sarcastic and pretentious ramble.

  9. Sranamare says:

    That’s great, Variety. You just keep on slamming every movie that comes out, it makes you look really important AND will lighten your workload over time by reducing the number of movies produced since nobody wants to see them anymore after your reviews. Bravo. On your way to retirement!

    • Michael P. says:

      Have you seen the trailers? What makes you think the movie isn’t as thin and slapdash as he decribes?

    • Dave Baxter says:

      I suppose the alternative is to just be a glorified arm of Hollywood PR and gush about everything. I prefer a bad movie be called a bad movie. It won’t lighten the load of movies produced, but it just might lighten the load of certain KINDS of movies being produced. And that won’t be a bad thing.

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