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Ebiri: Bring Your Young Adult Fantasy Film Bingo Card to Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Does anybody remember what happened in the first Percy Jackson movie, The Lightning Thief? It had something to do with a young kid named Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) learning that he’s the son of the Greek god Poseidon and discovering the secret, Harry Potter-like world of his fellow demigods. (To be honest, all I really remember of the film was that it was really loud.) But apparently it was successful enough that they’ve now made a sequel.

As it begins, Percy and his friends Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and the satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) are firmly ensconced at Hogwar ... I mean, Camp Half-Blood, “the only place on Earth that is safe for our kind,” where they're learning to use their powers and engaging in various competitions with other demigods. But, thanks in part to the fact that Poseidon is an absentee father, Percy is having doubts about his self-worth. So he mopes around lakes, talking to the water, waiting for a response. He's not sure he's genuinely earned any of the respect accorded him by his peers, a situation made worse by the fact that he's also being bullied by Clarisse (Leven Rambin), a daughter of Ares who keeps besting him at various camp trials.

The specific adventure this time around follows Percy and his friends, along with Clarisse and her better-equipped A-team, as they travel to the Sea of Monsters, which we normal humans know as the Bermuda Triangle, in an attempt to retrieve the legendary magical Golden Fleece.  Also after the Fleece are a rogue band of demigods led by Luke (Jake Abel), the wayward son of Hermes, who want to use it to revive Kronos, the brutal father who was slain by Zeus back in the day and buried inside Mt. Tartarus. (For those keeping score at home, this was roughly also the bad guys’ evil plan in The Immortals a couple of years ago.) The good news is that Percy has just learned of a prophecy that deems he might be the one to defeat the resurrected Kronos and save the gods of Olympus. Or he might wind up destroying them; this being a prophecy, it's kind of vague.

Interestingly, for all their time spent at Camp Half-Blood, our heroes have apparently learned very little actual mythology, given how basic concepts such as the Golden Fleece have to be explained to them; imagine a camp full of Christians who have to look up Adam and Eve, or the Holy Grail. Part of this is of course because the Percy Jackson stories make mincemeat of the original fables, but still, this kind of broad-strokes, clunkily expository storytelling dooms The Sea of Monsters right from the beginning. You don’t get the sense that anybody has spent any time trying to find ways to convey all this information with any artistry, or nuance, or surprise. The Harry Potter films had lots of exposition, too, but at their best they were able to convey it with some flair or suspense, allowing characters to gradually discover the backstory without having it constantly dictated to them.

Running counter to the regurgitative nature of the rest of the movie, one animated sequence relates the death of Kronos with stained glass figures come to life; iconography-wise, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but it’s the one visually interesting scene in the film. Tucci gets some good lines in as the jaded, wine-loving Dionysus, who runs Camp Half-Blood. (When Zeus turns his wine into water, he retorts, “You know, Christians have a guy who can do this thing in reverse. Now, that’s a god!”) Nathan Fillion lends some much-needed energy in a brief appearance as Hermes, who owns (what else?) a mail delivery company called OPS (Olympus Postal Service) and is seeking to expand. To help navigate the Bermuda Triangle, one character resurrects an old Civil War-era warship manned by a zombie crew. But for every imaginative bit there's more than enough wan recitation of the usual mystical-magical YA clichés, unfunny gags (are those “ethnic” snakes on Hermes’s herald staff?), plus sad-sack borrowings from other, better films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars. Even for those missing their Harry Potter fix, this is some weak, watered-down stuff.

Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox