This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
If you have to have a god for a dad, you could do worse than Poseidon. That's one of the messages of "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters," the sequel to the first Percy Jackson film, and based on Rick Riordan's popular teen novels.
Not that any of the ancient gods seem particularly attentive to their offspring, who are often conceived during a quick trip to earth. Logan Lerman once again plays Percy, here communicating with Poseidon by dipping a hand in his element. Sometimes he gets a ripple and sometimes he doesn't, which only adds to Percy's identity crisis. He worries about whether or not he can access his supernatural powers. But it's better than a lot of the gods-as-fathers we learn about in the tale of the Half-Bloods.
Poseidon is there in a crunch, coming up with a fanciful rainbow-colored horse-fish from the briny depths to rescue Percy and his pals, whose ranks include the stalwart Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, also familiar from the first film. And Poseidon—or Neptune if you will—is good for watery swirls, appropriate nods to the "Life of Pi." Dad has also tossed up a half-brother for Percy, Tyson (Douglas Smith) a Cyclops that the hero is not so sure he wants as a relative; so add sibling rivalry and a bit of snobbery to Percy's issues.
When the movie starts, Percy has returned to Camp Half-Blood, a haven for his kind, as well as for assorted satyrs and suspended gods. It's there that he finds his old friend, the satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson, again). But the camp's protection, secured by a magical tree, has broken down, and it's vulnerable to nasty mechanical monsters like the Colchis Bull, a stomper if there ever was one. The only way to secure the home front, Percy learns through a prophecy, will be to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Riordan, and the screenwriters—different for the two films—are working some kernels of myths and mashing up others. (The books have a compendium of gods; this movie gives a quick prologue in case you missed the first installment.) Though you have to wonder if the six year old on the aisle seat understands that the golden animal locks (fleece) and the movie's magical blanket with a lot of fancy gold-threaded embroidery—which looks like a kindergartener's nap rug—are one and the same.
Is Percy the hero for the job? The quest takes him to the Bermuda Triangle, after a pit stop in roots reminiscent of neoclassical-looking Washington DC, then onto a sea of dangers, followed by a run-in with a humungous Cyclops who can fee-fi-fo-fum sniff out the blood of tasty half-bloods. Next up is a Kronos-like CGI fellow who pops humans into his mouth, the way Saturn tossed back his own children, nobody you'd want in your family scrapbook. At every juncture Percy runs into Luke (Jake Abel), with whom he shares god relatives. Luke's goal is to return to the anarchic world of the Titans; throwing over ancestors is his idea of family fun. It's up to Percy to break the cycle of abuse. Yet Luke, who stole lightning from Zeus in the first film, here looks mainly hurt and brooding.
Percy and Co. join up with Clarisse (Leven Rambin) already on the front. The daughter of Ares, and a blunt and impulsive warrior of the new cinematic female fighter mode, she was a winner at the games in Camp Half-Blood. (In a hair-colored turnabout on their "real life" looks, admittedly based on publicity stills, lead Annabeth is the blue-eyed blonde; the sharp-tongued Clarisse a brunette. Even in the supernatural world, it seems, the old stereotypes rule.)
Lerman is adroit at looking eager and battle-worthy but not too cocky in a film as much about character development as sword play. He learns to appreciate his new-found half brother, a tender performance by Douglas Smith as a once ostracized Cyclops, sometimes wearing sunglasses to hide his uni-eyed state; at other moments he is protected by the supernatural mist Annabeth sprays to make him "acceptable." Which brother will be the heartthrob for teen girls? Perhaps a minority view, but my vote goes to Smith; after a while even the one eye seems tolerable, especially as his character is cutely klutzy.
Yet the takeaway is Stanley Tucci's caricature of a slovenly, slapdash Mr. D. (Dionysis) the ruler-in-residence at Camp Half-Blood, a job he never wanted. It's rivaled by a hilarious set piece featuring the Gray Ladies, a threesome of anachronistic New York Taxi drivers, perhaps a cross between oracles and harpies, who pick up Percy and pals at the start of their trip. The three creatures (Mary Birdsong, Yvette Nicole Brown, Missi Pyle) are as tart-tongued as any urban cabbie to their passengers and to each other, and comic relief for adults who tagged along with junior Percy Jackson fans.
Come to think of it, the grown-ups seem to deliver the film's best lines, some taken from the book. "If there's one thing I've learned in two thousand years, it's never give up on family," says Nate Fillion as Hermes, the wily messenger of the gods, cleverly updated to running a UPS operation.
Tired of telling people, "No, but I saw the movie," I read the novel. It has a witty, multi-layered teen point of view, with appropriate mentions of acne. Yet in the film spell things out in a tediously prosaic way, as when when Percy declares that we make our own destinies. Marc Guggenheim, the screenwriter, also writes comics for DC; perhaps his ability to deliver one-note slogans was a calling card.
The 3-D effects don't call attention to themselves (this may disappoint some viewers). The family values are pleasantly if unexcitingly presented. Has Harry Potter been eclipsed? Will the sequel top the popular success of the first film? No, and probably no. With few huge star names, like Uma Thurman as Medusa, or Pierce Brosnan as Chiron, and with Thor Freudenthal ("Diary of a Wimpy Kid") directing—Chris Columbus did the first film—this "Percy Jackson" is a gentler-spirited, less flashy enterprise, though it still presents a natural world that can morph at the whim of a god. I like that.
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