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Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

August 7, 2013
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

In a way, it’s almost unfair to Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. Earlier this month, Turner Classic Movies aired a tribute series to the late Ray Harryhausen, and I spent a few days watching great stop-motion mythological action from Jason and the Argonauts to the original Clash of the Titans. There’s just no way that a Harry Potter knockoff could possibly measure up. Even so, it’s not too unfair; there’s plenty wrong with Percy Jackson for it to fail on its own merits.

In case you wisely skipped the first installment, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is an ordinary kid who one day finds out that he’s anything but. He’s whisked into a mystical, parallel realm to our own, where he learns that he’s not only more than simply human, he’s fated for great things within this new world. Sound familiar? Well, this time the inspiration is Greek mythology, at least in principle. Percy turns out to be the son of Poseidon, and he and all the other such demigods live in the woods at the creatively-named Camp Half-Blood, along with centaurs and satyrs, and overseen by Dionysus (Stanley Tucci), who seems to be on Zeus’ bad side, thus preventing him from getting blotto in a movie aimed at kids.

The action kicks off when the protective barrier around the camp is breached, and it is determined that the only thing that can heal the tree that generated it is the golden fleece, which is hidden somewhere in the “Sea of Monsters” — that’s the Bermuda Triangle to you and me — and a team of heroes is dispatched after it. No, not Percy; he’s dealing with personal adequacy issues because Clarisse (Leven Rambin), daughter of Ares, keeps beating him, and she’s sent instead. But Percy, his satyr friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, take up the search on their own. This despite the fact that “it’s not cool to bogart another hero’s quest”.

Yes, that’s about the level of writing on display here. It’s really not the actors’ fault; Lerman, for one, showed some real talent in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. No, these lines are just objectively awful, whether on the page or coming out of the cast. Which means it’s either the fault of screenwriter Marc Guggenheim or the original author, Rick Riordan. Guggenheim’s other notable film, Green Lantern was hokey and off-balance but not quite this bad, and the previous movie in this series was, so I think the bulk of the blame has to go to Riordan’s source material. But that still doesn’t explain so many terrible decisions — the ridiculously heavy-handed bookend narration delivered by Percy himself, for instance — so Guggenheim’s still not entirely off the hook.

The story itself is an awful, lopsided mashup of Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and a few other sources. I’m not about to demand absolute fidelity to the myths, as if that’s even possible, but Riordan does such violence to some of the greatest adventures in all of literature trying to cram them into his patronizing little cookie-cutter young adult novels. The condescension with which he addresses his young audience is palpable, and director Thor Freudenthal — late of Hotel for Dogs and Diary of a Wimpy Kid — follows suit.

There are a lot of contenders for the giant gap in the young adult adventure sector of the cinematic map vacated by the end of both Harry Potter and Twilight. Most of them stick closer to the Twilight end, with the low-hanging fruit of doomed young love triangles in easy reach. Maybe they shy away from even attempting to recreate Harry Potter because it’s so hard to build such a lush, engaging fantasy world while maintaining a balanced ensemble cast, taking the inspirational material seriously, and not talking down to a younger audience. The makers of Percy Jackson certainly don’t have it in them.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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