20th Century Fox (2013) 106 min. PG
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Screenplay: Marc Guggenheim; based on novel Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
Cinematography: Shelly Johnson; Editing: Mark Goldblatt; Production Design: Claude Paré; Set Decoration: Selina van den Brink & Shane Vieau
Costumes: Monique Prudhomme; Score: Andrew Lockington
Stars: Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson), Brandon T. Jackson (Grover Underwood), Alexandra Daddario (Annabeth Chase), Leven Rambin (Clarisse La Rue), Jake Abel (Luke Castellan), Douglas Smith (Tyson), Stanley Tucci (Dionysus), Nathan Fillion (Hermes), Robert Maillet (Polyphemus)
The second screen adaptation from the series for young adults written by Rick Riordan, these new Percy Jackson movies are like Harry Potter for the more mythological minded. They seem to be following a fixed pattern, appearing every few years, nearly in tandem with the latest Clash of the Titans release, after which they appear to be modeled. With the myth updated to the modern day, they’re what Son of Kong was to King Kong, lightweight junior varsity variations on a theme. They cutesify the concept by setting it in kiddie college, a paramilitary training camp for all the underage, illegitimate demigods sired by Olympians. They’re sent to Camp Half-Blood to be trained for future quests and watching them mimicking the mannerisms of mythological adults is much like watching children play dress-up.
The first entry in the series, The Lightning Thief was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise back in 2010, but since then we’ve developed a pretty good idea of what to expect from these titles, so it’s something of a letdown when the movie falls into the same prefabricated grooves. The initial Percy Jackson movie benefited from being released before the Clash of the Titans itself came out, so the concept seemed completely fresh. Sea of Monsters on the other hand is riding in on the Wrath of the Titans wave from a full year ago, as though that disappointing sequel had itself stuck very vividly in the imagination. Directed by Thor Freudenthal, who did Diary of a Wimpy Kid awhile back, the premise of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is almost precisely the same as that of Wrath of the Titans, with the disgruntled demigod Luke from the first Percy film still trying to work through his abandonment issues by raising Kronos from the dead. He wants to exact revenge on absent fathers everywhere, but in particular his own, Hermes the messenger of the gods who now runs a UPS shipment center and is impersonated by Nathan Fillion, looking far from lighter than air these days (it would take something more substantial than a pair of winged sandals to lift all that heft off the ground, but the script still works in a shameless, self-referential plug for his long-cancelled cult TV series Firefly). Luke’s plan to steal Zeus’ lightning bolt having fallen through the first time around, he’s moved on to Plan B, intending to unloose the original titan himself, father of all the Olympian gods, to destroy (raze?) the world. Apart from the obvious debt this premise owes to the aforementioned Wrath, there are stray inspirations from other sources as well, and those as far afield as Jason and the Argonauts, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pinocchio. Even the Bermuda Triangle gets thrown into the mix for good measure. As with both versions of Titans, these Percy Jackson movies gain their emotional grounding by focusing on the anger neglected sons harbor toward their negligent fathers, and while the concept seems more tenable when transposed to surly, resentful teenagers who are at a rebellious age already, it’s been forcefully overlaid onto Sea of Monsters rather than allowed to grow naturally out of the story itself, as it seemed to in the first film. Carried forward, it just feels like holdover here, emotional baggage based on the author’s own residual issues. Percy, who is supposed to be dyslexic (though you’d hardly guess it from this film), was inspired by Riordan’s own son, while his series’ absent father-resentful children themes, which seem so grounded in uncomfortable modern day realities, are an expression of his unresolved feelings toward a father who was rarely around following his own parents’ breakup.
His lightning thief is still trying to engineer the downfall of Olympus out of childish spite. He’s like Percy’s untapped id run rampant. Whereas Percy has learned to manage his emotions, keeping them bottled up inside, Luke wants to get back at all the gods, the unfit parents who refuse to have anything to do with their part-human halflings. And while one might be inclined to suspect he has every right to feel the way he does about that, we can also understand why the titan would have swallowed his own insufferable offspring, rather than let them loose to become such brooding ingrates as to challenge his authority in this manner. It makes no sense that Luke would choose to sail to the dilapidated amusement park island of cyclops Polyphemus, rather than take to the air, his natural domain. That would have really put the two main demigods’ powers to the test, racing to see who could arrive first, by sky or by sea. But it gives Percy a chance to show off his gnarly mastery of the waters by catching a bitching wave and surfing it to safety (an image so obviously meant to be iconic it comes off as self-conscious). At times this passage might make viewers feel as if they were weathering an acid flashback from Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the father-son conflict this go round, Sea of Monsters instead expands upon the idea of extended family by having Percy discovering that his father sired even more illegitimate offspring, a teenage Cyclops by the name of Tyson (but then wasn’t Polyphemus also supposed to be a son of Poseidon?). One might expect some festering hurt feelings to accompany the kid’s attempt to come to terms with the revelation that he has a half-brother-from-a-different-mother he knew nothing about, especially after he observes the same father who won’t acknowledge his existence lavishing preferential treatment on his one-eyed son. Poseidon immediately answers Tyson’s prayer for help by sending a hippocampi, which resembles a pastel colored pinto pony from the upper half and a finned eel from the lower (a cadborosaurus?), to transport the party out to Luke’s offshore yacht. Yet wide-eyed Percy casually shrugs off Tyson’s unexpected existence without so much as a double take (after everything else, it hardly seems a shock).
We on the other hand can’t help but be suspicious of Tyson’s mysterious, unexplained arrival out of nowhere and wait for Annabeth’s guarded mistrust of him to be validated in some manner. But Sea of Monsters is lacking in the salty dramatic depth befitting the son of the sea, instead leaving everything floating shallowly on the surface within easy grasp. There are no surprises hidden beneath Tyson’s sudden appearance. What’s worse, he’s been conceived to serve as this film’s Jar Jar Binks, so clumsy, hapless and irrepressibly upbeat he becomes an annoyance. Many actors have sported false noses but Douglas Smith, as Tyson, may be the first to be defined by plopping on a false peeper, and it proves an unfortunate distraction. Like the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac, one just can’t stop staring at it (it stares right back). The CG hasn’t been worked out in a way to make his ocular organ look convincing. The effects artists don’t appear to have decided whether this dilated headlamp was meant to represent the right eye or the left, leaving the kid looking cockeyed, and us uncertain as to which direction he’s supposed to be looking at any given time. From a distance, this orb appears a blurry smudge, as though it had been rubbed in with a blending brush. It just sort of floats around in the center of Smith’s forehead rather than being positioned in a realistic socket under his brow ridge (he’s been given no unibrow), so it’s no wonder he self-consciously plops on a pair of shades every time he feels people gawking. He’s a pirate in need of an eye patch, as befits his oceanic origins. But like Percy, who removes Tyson’s sunglasses at the end, telling him not to be ashamed to be himself, we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing him that way that when he applies a spray that imparts the appearance of normalcy, the actor’s own two eyes seem just as strangely unconvincing as the one had before. Mike, the animated testicle with legs in Monsters University made a more convincing looking Cyclops.
The exceptional, polished cast which graced the first Percy Jackson movie, Catherine Keener as Percy’s mom, Uma Thurman as Medusa, Peirce Brosnan as a centaur, Rosario Dawson as Persephone, Kevin McKidd as Poseidon, Steve Coogan as Hades, Sean Bean as Zeus and Joe Pantoliano haven’t returned for this second outing and their absence dims it of a considerable measure of theatrical flourish. The effects capturing the swiftly fluid movement of centaur Chiron (Anthony Head takes over the role from Brosnan) and Brandon T. Jackson’s goat-limbed satyr Grover (supplanted as comedy relief by Douglas Smith’s Cyclops, he might as well have sat this one out as well, since the script hasn’t given him nearly enough to do), are up to the same high standard however; they remain magnificent.
Sea of Monsters introduces only one truly intriguing new character, Leven Rambin’s insanely competitive Clarisse (she’s like Lea Michele’s unbearable Rachel on Glee), but we’re not filled in on her backstory or why precisely she has a hatchet out for poor Percy in particular, simply assuming that it’s part of her makeup as child to Ares, god of war, leaving her participation in events seeming peripheral at best. What’s worse, she upstages Alexandra Deddario’s Annabeth, the series’ resident female lead, which shouldn’t be permitted to happen. But Annabeth is daughter of Athena, goddess of wisdom, so while she can devise strategies and think her way out of scrapes easily enough, she has far less to offer from a proactive standpoint, leaving all the athletic fun for the boys to take part in.
The early setups don’t add up to anything once the adventure is actually under way, but the script’s chirpy one-liners keep things hopping, like the live-action equivalent of comic book caption balloons. Moments of passing amusement include that dude during the character building exercise who Percy sacrifices victory to rescue (thereby displaying true character), casually brushing him off with an offhand ‘thanks’ after his savior ends up more bruised and battered than he is himself. While the joke about the politically correct ways to refer to Cyclopes fails to improve the second time it’s repeated, there’s a superior one when a confederate zombie sailor (don’t ask) enthusiastically echoes “Aye, aye cap’n!” then turns to see the insulted, one-eyed Cyclops standing right behind him. Everything zips by so hectically that time isn’t given over to explaining more archaic mythology like what that hell-hound with the scorpion tail is supposed to be, or the Colchis bull nearer the beginning.
The movie engenders an unintentional emotional distancing from the audience when it has Stanley Tucci’s alcoholic Dionysus, who has been cursed to never again let liquor touch his lips, referring to the Christian’s God turning water into wine, rather than vice versa. For a minute it throws us out of the movie so that we’re no longer identifying with the characters but instead watching a passel of little pagans running around in a bizarre alternate reality. It’s rather confounding setting classical myths that are meant to have occurred millennia ago alongside the present day, then having Percy consult the Oracle of Delphi about his destiny as though it were still to come. The Percy and the Olympians series was written by a teacher who originally devised these fables as bedtime stories for his children. Like most parents inventing on the spot, he obviously pulled in bits and pieces from all over our rummage bin of amassed pop culture, regardless of their actual associations, relationships, and place in the historical continuum. Apparently the dots weren’t any more satisfactorily connected in Percy Jackson‘s professionally published form, from which the tale has been carried forward directly into this movie adaptation.
The Lightning Thief and Sea of Monsters exist in a special time warp of their own, a self-contained Bermuda Triangle where past, present and future coexist simultaneously and have gotten all muddled up. Of course kids will consider this terribly clever, and like the Night at the Museum movies, it’s a harmlessly creative way to spark their interest in myth and history, which is what devoted teacher-father Riordan originally intended. Much of the mythology that serves as basis for these movies aimed at children however could hardly be considered age-appropriate. So one shudders to think how little tykes are supposed to process the sources these Percy movies hail from and have perked their interest in. The implied critique of fathers who deserted babies they couldn’t be bothered to help raise is cleverly parlayed over in a contemporary manner many kids can easily identify with. But what possible sense can modern day mindsets make out of ancient myths like Leda, Ganymede and Europa with their rampant imagery of bestiality, rape and pedophilia? Even the centaurs and satyrs running all over the place in Percy Jackson’s classical-inspired world were originally conceived by the ancients to embody human sexuality at its most animalistic.
The satyr Grover serves as one of the series’ recurring characters and while there were some clever riffs on his randy nature in the original, here he seems about as sexually licentious as a bleating old nanny goat (though there is one funny scene where this perpetually horny beast is shown to feel diminished by a better built rival). Percy centers around the emotional fallout on kids left behind after their god-fathers knocked up mortal earth women, while thoroughly sanitizing that concept of its primal indecency. The Oedipal themes have been divorced from their original psycho-sexual roots, leaving us in squeaky clean mouseketeer territory. This Percy series is starting to seem more toothless than Disney’s animated Hercules. There’s such a complete sense of disconnect here between the ancient myth and its modern day equivalent, one is left feeling strangely discombobulated. Kronos consumed his own children rather than have them grow up to overthrow him, embodying an archetypal Oedipal fear on the part of both father (who fears being toppled from his throne as king of the castle) and son (who fears being regressed by parental authority and reabsorbed into the womb from which he emerged). Yet Sea of Monsters seems to psychologically translate this over into suggestion after stomach-churning suggestion of fetishistic vore, with characters being consumed willy-nilly by a ravenous assortment of monsters.
One inventive passage has what initially appear to be enormous shark fins emerging from the water and slowly surrounding Percy’s life raft, only to have the camera pull back so we can take in more of the scene, revealing him to be caught in the rows of teeth rimming the opening of a man-eating whirlpool that threatens to slurp him down to Davy Jones’ Locker. It’s the watery equivalent of that sand dune death trap in Return of the Jedi. Caught in the belly of the beast, like Pinocchio, Percy must devise a way to escape before being completely absorbed by the stomach juices of the Charybdis. He’s threatened with being eaten alive (again) by the cannibalistic Cyclops Polyphemus, while his poor arch rival Luke is consumed twice, first by the recidivist Kronos who he himself had raised from the dead, getting scarfed down for his trouble, and ending the film trapped in the lair of that salivating Cyclops to serve, we’re left to assume, as its last meal. The part of Luke is again taken by Jake Abel and the alarmingly gaunt young actor looks a tad famished himself. He’s so obsessively hungry for the role, he doesn’t appear to have been clued in that the movie isn’t to be taken seriously. He raises Hades with all the self-possessed zeal of those kids who brought their dead pets back to life in Frankenweenie.
Every character in the movie dies at some point (it’s Sea of Monsters’ equivalent of giving everyone their turn in the spotlight), only to be restored to life by one miraculous agency or another. But then, demigods can’t die anyway being immortal and all, which certainly kills the suspense. They’re like resilient animated characters who just keep bouncing back, even after you drop a bank safe on them or place a stick of dynamite in their hands. So this series is probably not set to wrap anytime soon. Like the Harry Potter cast, these kids will probably be middle aged before they’re released from their contracts and free to move on to better things. Logan Lerman, who plays Percy, has been diligently plodding along of late, in both kiddie corn like this and more challenging, substantial titles like the Perks of Being a Wallflower (opposite Harry Potter’s own Hermione, Emma Watson) and Stuck in Love, but to my mind he has yet to distinguish himself from celebrity lookalike Dylan Minette. This Perseus has dropped the last syllable to update the concept, but what right-minded parents name their sons Percy anymore? In this day and age it sounds nearly as archaic as that original moniker. Despite proving the hero of each one of these entries, this hapless underdog somehow gets relegated back to the status of loser by the end (here Clarisse gets credit for the success of the quest), so that audiences can root for him afresh in the follow-up. But this makes all of Percy’s single minded pursuits seem frustratingly futile; he’s like that poor guy forever damned to push a boulder uphill in Hades, only to watch it roll right back down at the end of each day. In myth, heroes must perform great deeds in order to earn that appellation, but in our contemporary, comic book frame of mind, we’ve become more accustomed to charity not vaunting itself, allowing superheroes to retain their secret identity. Percy’s curse seems to never be able to get the open acknowledgement due him for his heroic endeavors.
In the original Lightning Thief adaptation, where Percy first discovered his origins and was just coming into his powers, it all seemed as new to us as it was to him, and the correlation of ancient Greek myth with its modern, Greco-Roman American equivalents rather clever. But Sea of Monsters fails to build on the idea or advance it in any appreciable new directions. It’s committed the worst crime of sequel-making by simply reiterating the same formula with new threats in a different setting. Caught in a fixed pattern, Percy Jackson is cursed to repeat history over and over again, in only slightly modified forms. This series seems to have prematurely run out of steam, much as our heroes’ life raft does after Tyson loses that thermos containing the winds from the four corners. Sea of Monsters leaves us feeling like we’ve ventured again into all too familiar waters.
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