Three years ago, Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief didn't exactly take the world by storm, but its modest box office returns were good enough to justify a sequel and keep young star Logan Lerman lashed to the mast for at least one contractually obligated sequel. That sequel has arrived, and in following up its already sort-of blah predecessor, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters not surprisingly feels more dutiful than creatively energized.
Based on the popular YA book series by Rick Riordan, the Percy Jackson franchise doesn't bother to disguise its mandate to be Harry Potter on a budget, replacing magic with Greek mythology and Hogwarts with Camp Half-Blood. Director Thor Freudenthal, taking the reins from Chris Columbus, does his best to keep the sequel roughly on par with the original, chasing down action and goofy humor but not bothering to consider innovation, narrative sense, or genuine dramatic weight. To Freudenthal, the picture seems to mean not a creative opportunity but a career one, another incremental step from tween comedy Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was itself an incremental step from kiddie comedy Hotel for Dogs.
Lerman's Percy, the half-blood son of Poseidon, must this time go on a quest across the Sea of Monsters ("what the humans called the Bermuda Triangle") to recover the Golden Fleece in order to restore life to the magical tree containing the spirit of Zeus's daugh—zzzzzzzzz. Wha—? Where was I? Let's keep it simple: Percy's satyr bestie Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and puppy-love interest Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) are still hanging around, and Luke (Jake Abel) is still a pissy bad guy. And they're all half as interesting as they were last time. New to the scene is Clarisse (Leven Rambin), the gung-ho demigod daughter of Ares, god of war.
Sea of Monsters nominally feints at character development by beginning at a place of self-doubt for Percy ("You're more than a one-quest wonder," assures Grover), then further shaking him by putting his world in jeopardy and sending him a half-brother: the ditzy cyclops Tyson (Douglas Smith). Daddy seems to like Tyson best, but Annabeth hates him with something approaching racist disdain. Citing nonsense reasoning, Annabeth insists that Tyson use a spray-mist to disguise his cyclops-ness behind an impression of two-eyed normality. Our hero Percy observes this with an expression of slight dismay, but cravenly says nothing, partly because the CGI budget and (in all likelihood) Douglas Smith's agent dictate otherwise.
Percy's pusillanimity alternates with his natural instincts kicking in, making the movie a cycle of brood, leap into action, brood, leap into action, brood... As in The Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters comes peppered with Ancient Greek literary allusions—with attitude! That's good news whenever the adults are around, particularly Stanley Tucci as Dionysus and Nathan Fillion as Hermes. Blessed with the funniest material, they happily make meals of the scenery: erstwhile party-animal Dionysus amusingly lives on the wrong side of Zeus, while UPS-guy Hermes serves as Percy and company's "Q" (lending a hand in hopes Percy can get through to Hermes' son Luke).
Yes, Percy faces his Charybdis, but it turns out to be less an Odyssey and more a rehash-mashup of Pinocchio and Pirates of the Caribbean, with not-so-special effects. And Sea of Monsters piles up the insults by (spoiler alert) clumsily faking deaths before (double spoiler alert) bringing no less than three apparently dead characters, one by one, back to life. "PG" rating aside, it's the kind of teflon plotting that even the youngest audiences can recognize as being unworthy of taking seriously.