PERCY JACKSON AND THE SEA OF MONSTERS is an improvement on its predecessor, PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF, a film that had much potential as the kick-start of a franchise, but was not, alas, all it could have been. What it had going for it, though, and this one has, too, is that the Greek myths, which form the raw material of the story, have enthralled humankind for several thousand years. Rick Riordan, author of the series of young-adult novels on which the films are based, and screenwriter Marc Guggenheim have no problem putting those myths in the context of the 21st century, and doing so with what made them so tantalizing intact. They also have a fine sense of human nature, and an even finer sense of adventure tinged with a puckish sense of humor.
Percy (Logan Lerman) is on another quest this time, and questioning if he is good enough to be the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. His one-sided conversations with dad yield a half-brother he never knew he had, or could possibly have expected, in the form of Tyson (Douglas Smith), whose non-divine half is also not human. As for the quest, he is seeking the Golden Fleece, the only thing that can save the camp sanctuary where the demi-gods, the products of Olympian Gods dalliances with mortals, learn their semi-divine skills. He has Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a satyr, and his new half-brother to help. He also has Clarisse (Levin Rambin), the arrogantly competitive daughter of Ares, to contend with, as well as an ancient prophecy that places the fate of Olympus in his hands, and an old enemy who just wont stay dead.
What is best about the film is its sense of fun, even when things look particularly dire. The rampaging bull that assaults the camp is a meticulously crafted metal beast rife with gears and fiddly-bits as well as horns that multi-task and a fire-breathing apparatus. Its also an example of the CGI that pays homage to Ray Harryhausen, an effect man whose stop-motion masterpieces made the inherent imperfections of the medium their greatest charm. The CGI itself is used to perfection to create a perfectly credible Cyclops, whose eye reflects a finely shaded array of emotions, and a stained-glass window that comes to life as the wizened Oracle of Delphi clues Percy in on his destiny. As Percy and company tackle mythical creatures such as Charybdis, a sea creature that makes sharks seem like guppies, and a Chariot of Damnation driven by three grey sisters with one eye between them and that looks like a New York City cab, they also grapple with less archetypal, but no less universal themes, such as maturing as well as growing up, the injustice of blind prejudice, and seizing control of ones destiny. It also provides a tidy explanation of where things go when they disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, which is what we mere mortals call the eponymous Sea of Monsters.
The action sequences could, and should be, crisper, with the hand-to-hand taking on a perfunctory feel as the protagonists vent their dislike for one another with less passion than such things usually involve. Still, director Thor Freudenthal has a nice insight into the adolescent struggles faced by the children of absent parents, never discounting the issues that result therefrom, nor trivializing them with melodrama. In fact, Jake Abel, returning as Luke, the villain of the piece, could have used a little more heat, bringing a stalwart and stoic petulance to the lack of attention shown him by Hermes (Nathan Fillion in another bravura performance of comedic hubris). On the other hand and in Lerman he has found the perfect muse, with a fresh mix of brashness and introspection, and with Smith, a gentle, eternally optimistic innocence unmussed by irony. The supporting players do not allow their dearth of screen time to stand in the way of standout performances, starting with the ci-mentioned Fillion, and including Stanley Tucci as Mr. D (as in Dionysius) darkly burbling his discontent with a particularly poetic curse put on him by Zeus as he almost, but not quite, manages the demi-god camp while sporting leopard-print camp shirts and a snarky attitude. As Chiron, the centaur who is the brains of the operation, Anthony Stewart Head takes the, ahem, reins from Pierce Brosnan and brings a properly tweedy approach to equine elegance.
PERCY JACKSON AND THE SEA OF MONSTERS is a fun adventure that makes the prospect of future adaptations of the Riordin novels something to look forward to, not dread.