You really have to be careful with these young adult franchises. “Harry Potter” managed to lock up participants for what became an annual entry in the series, as audiences watched these kids grow into functioning young adults. That franchise knew the value of time; three and a half years later, we have the second film in the “Percy Jackson” saga, and the cast is comprised of college-age kids playing much younger versions of themselves, and embarrassed to do so. “Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters” is most interesting because of what it can’t help being: a too-late sequel years after the zeitgeist, clearly the product of a lowered budget and adjusted expectations following a not-well-received first picture. Keep the flame, Percy. Keep the flame.
Logan Lerman returns as Percy, the son of Poseidon and a skilled manipulator of water, budget permitting. At the film’s start, he’s at a camp for the offspring of the gods, essentially Hogwarts Village. Because he’s the only living direct descendant of a God, he remains important enough to have his own prophecy to fulfill. Plans are in motion to resurrect Kronos, a literal God-eater who spawned Zeus, Hades and Poseidon and will rise again to bring about an apocalypse. The MacGuffin is a golden fleece that Percy must find before fellow demigod Luke (Jake Abel, giving off strong Kevin Bacon vibes) uses it to bring the monster back to life.
Because Poseidon was a grabby sort, Percy also learns he’s got a half-brother from a nymph mother, the cyclops Tyson (Douglas Smith). This shaggy-haired simpleton simply appears out of nowhere, sporting snazzy shades to hide his ocular deficiency. Though his real shortcoming seems to be his clumsy oafishness and bumbling comic relief attributes; never fear, because he’s a Swiss Army Knife for plot purposes, disappearing and then returning in times of need, with lines like, “Cyclopses are fireproof.” He seems like a product left over from the books, a series penned by Rick Riordan so tailor-made for the fanbase, that the first film was essayed by “Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone” director by Chris Columbus, who retains a producing credit this time around. Tyson, inevitably, is just another special effect.
Percy and Tyson embark on the quest for the fleece, joined by capable Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and wisecracking Grover (Brandon Jackson). Despite receiving second billing, Jackson is absent for the entirety of the second act, victim of a kidnapping that’s almost as undignified as the CGI hoofs he sports as a satyr. Jackson gives a performance that suggests an undeniable disdain for the material, as if he knows he’s the film’s token minority, looking like a sideshow distraction while he props up another white kid fulfilling another white kid prophecy.
Their trip takes them to random locations across the U.S. (all shot in Canada, natch), where we are meant to surmise two things: they’re being watched by shadowy agents everywhere, but are also surrounded by a number of people with god-like powers who are able to keep them secret from the general public, because magic. One of them includes Hermes—played by Nathan Fillion, bringing a Bruce Campbell-esque subversion to this small part—reimagined as a Q of the God-world, dispensing wisdom and gizmos under the guise of being a lowly postal worker.
Lerman’s Percy remains an unlikely lead character for a big budget fantasy film. The screenwriting rule is steadfastly followed, with Percy Refusing The Call and shying away from the mission at hand. But there’s no real appeal to this character: over two films, they’ve simply tossed a series of trials at him to see how he’d react. Here, even the camp (run by a boozing Stanley Tucci) selects a different representative to seek the fleece, super-capable snob Clarisse (Levin Rambin). The film is vaguely self-aware, enough to give the girls of the story enough to do, but not enough to acknowledge that Clarisse’s snippiness makes her loads more interesting, and eventually more capable, than our reluctant hero, even with the attractive Rambin’s one-dimensional performance. By the time Clarisse’s ship rescues Percy from the Sea of Monsters (a ten minute detour that has no relation to the plot, but seems dictated by the title), you would hope someone would force this weak-shouldered fake hero to take a backseat.
Like all cheap sequels, “Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters” closes at a typically-cheap location: an abandoned theme park. Fortunately, whatever locations the production couldn’t afford, they made up with special effects sequences. The little action in 'Percy Jackson' wouldn’t be out-of-place in a superhero film, which is to say it’s mostly functional, and sometimes quite diverting. A limber robotic bull transforms and flips through one early sequence, a standout moment that has the chaos and invention of clever animation. And the realization of Kronos tops the same moment in “Wrath Of The Titans,” as the creature lumbers by foot, slowly falling apart and reforming as he stalks, as if powered by gravity. Of course, there isn’t much diversity at play here; it’s telling that this Kronos conceptually doesn’t look much different than the one in 'Titans.' In blockbusters, one size fits all. [C-]