The world, I think, could use less “cool” and “awesome,” and far more “fun” and “funny.” Too many action summer blockbusters – i.e. anything rated PG-13 – seem a little too keen on bland teen-ready pseudo-heroics performed by an ever-increasing roster of grizzled, brooding badasses. Even when modern Hollywood decides to take a bright-eyed and fresh-faced character like Superman, they must muss his hair, give him a bland Byronic adolescent brooding complex, and depict him slamming his fists dozens of times right into a guy's face. Even when Guillermo Del Toro makes something like Pacific Rim – a movie, I remind you, about giant robots fighting giant monsters – the tone is a little too brutal, a little too dirty, a little too dark to make the movie just plain outright fun. Even movies like the ones in The Avengers series, for however enjoyable those films are, seem a little too keenly aware of their capital-M-myth to really break through as something that seems bright-eyed and genuine.
Thor Freudenthal's Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is fun. Not cool. Fun. It's not about broody badasses, but wide-eyed kids keen to have an adventure. It's about people who are having fun while they endure their trials. It's about creepy atmospheres, scary monsters, and varied scenarios our heroes and heroines must overcome. It is a bright-eyed and rollicking entertainment, and thank goodness. Only rated PG, and clearly aiming for a slightly younger audience than most actioners (maybe around 11, rather than the usual 14 or 15), Sea of Monsters is the kind of brashly enjoyable kids' fantasy film that all of the Harry Potter films should have been, but stopped being sometime around film #3.
Which is an odd comment to make, since Richard Riordan's Percy Jackson novels were clearly transparent imitators to the Harry Potter setup. In both series, a young lad learns that he is magically endowed, is spirited off to a magical school/training camp for magic people, and deals with political schisms within that magical universe. Our heroes also both have a mugging comic male friend, and a pretty and capable female friend. In Harry Potter, it was wizards and witches. In Percy Jackson, it was the Greek pantheon of gods.
Percy (Logan Lerman) is the son of Poseidon (an absentee father) and in the first book, as in the first film, he is sent to a training camp (a literal camp with cabins and campfires) where he is to hone his godlike powers under the tutelage of other beings from Greek mythology, including centaurs, cyclopses and the like. His head teacher is a now-sober Dionysus (Stanley Tucci). His best friend is Annabeth (the preternaturally gorgeous Alexandra Daddario, whose midriff you may remember from Texas Chainsaw 3D) and their funny sidekick is Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a wise-cracking satyr.
Percy Jackson – in both book and movie form – is an open imitator to the throne, and seems to be okay with that. It's not going to pretend that its “myth” is larger or more important than the pop culture myths that are swirling around it. It's just going to have a setup, and play it out quietly in a few perfectly enjoyable movies released late in the Summer.
In this film, Percy is doubting his identity after saving the world in the last Percy Jackson film, and has been supplanted in popularity at camp by the capable warrioress Clarisse (Leven Rambin), who is the daughter of Ares. When a wicked ex-camp member named Luke (Jake Abel, the bad guy from the first film), out of spite, poisons the magical tree that keeps the god camp invisible to the rest of the world, leaving them vulnerable to monster attacks (there's a cool mechanical bull that does a number on the cabins early in the film), it's up to Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Percy's newfound cyclops half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith) to find the Golden Fleece and take advantage of its magical healing powers. But not before Luke finds it and uses it to release Chronos from Tartarus. You know your Greek mythology, right? Along the way, our heroes consult a mummy oracle, ride in an enchanted cab, ride on the back of a hippocampus, fight a bugbear, get advice from Hermes (Nathan Fillion), break out of Charybdis' stomach (on a WWII battleship manned by Civil War zombies), and do battle with Polyphemus underneath an abandoned amusement park.
These are broad pulp action scenarios that feel sweet, well-worn, and kind of timeless. The film is brisk (maybe a little too brisk), lighthearted, and even a little bit weird at times. It's even leavened some of the bluntness of 2010's Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which was flat but still rousingly enjoyable in itself. I think because the film's mythology is so rooted in, well, mythology, we find that we are constantly on the same page. It's not edgy or daring, but it's comfortably classical. The film also takes place in a decidedly modern world, where we get to see how the Pantheon has come to acclimate itself to a world with modern technology in it, and the clash is amusing and often very funny. The humor only occasionally stoops into goofy it's-funny-when-monsters-use-modern-slang territory (as when a pair of talking snakes sass at each other like sitcom characters).
I have a feeling that many audiences – especially Harry Potter fans – will kind of dismiss Sea of Monsters as yet another also-ran in the post-Harry Potter kid fantasy boom (and Lord knows there were plenty of them), but what the filmmakers have done is scale back the hefty largeness of the drama, and mercifully focused on that one quality that so few films even try for: Fun, dangit. Fun!
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Free Film School and The Series Project here on CraveOnline, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.