For a movie whose subtitle is Sea Of Monsters, the new Percy Jackson film sure skimps on the wild things. Sure, there are a few: a ramping mechanical bull that looks both cool and unbelievably phony, a snarling feline beastie with a scorpion stinger, and a giant leviathan with teeth the size of shark fins and a belly teeming with unlucky sailors. (A sight to see, that one.) Occasional creatures aside, Sea Of Monsters overdoses instead on mythology, and not just the Greek kind on which its fanciful world of gods and demigods is built. This is an all-ages fantasy adventure that never stops bombarding its audience with information—about magic spells, ancient grudges, and the rules of interspecies breeding. Characters don’t so much have conversations as read Dungeons & Dragons manuals at each other. The whole thing feels like exposition in search of a story.
It must have taken some herculean number crunching to justify a sequel to 2010’s tepidly received Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, one of several recent attempts to spin a kids’-lit book series into a Potter-sized film series. Logan Lerman, so affecting as the wallflower of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, returns as teenage demigod Percy, bastard son of Poseidon, and a hero bland enough to make a certain bespectacled wizard seem multidimensional. He and his fellow illegitimate half-bloods—the deities are basically all deadbeat dads—live together at a magical summer camp, this franchise’s answer to Hogwarts. When not competing in Wipeout-style obstacle courses and clashing with a fiercely competitive teen titan (Leven Rambin, Iceman to Lerman’s Maverick), Percy is pining for the guidance of his absentee father. (Considering that Kevin McKidd, who played Poseidon in the first film, is absent from the new film’s cast list, he probably shouldn’t hold his breath.) Determined to be more than a “one-quest wonder,” Percy rounds up his posse—Brandon T. Jackson’s wisecracking satyr, Alexandra Daddario’s bossy daughter of Athena—and heads for the Bermuda Triangle. Also along for the ride is his one-eyed half-brother (Douglas Smith), whose presence makes the Cyclops-hating Daddario uncomfortable. See, it’s not all Harry Potter redux: In this magical world, the Hermione Granger character is a racist!
Here and there, some of this starts to feel a little less like homework and more like fun. Though part one used up many of the good monsters—like Medusa and the hydra—part two is a fleeter entertainment, free of origin-story requirements. It’s also marginally better made: While Chris Columbus brought his leaden Sorcerer’s Stone touch to The Lightning Thief, new director Thor Freudenthal (Diary Of A Wimpy Kid) demonstrates a greater flair for CGI spectacle. Squint hard enough and it’s possible to pretend you’re watching a kind of YA version of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, complete with a scene of the heroes tied up while the villains unwisely unleash an ancient evil. Meanwhile, those hoping for more of the high-camp cameos that distinguished the original will have to settle for Stanley Tucci, hamming it up as a sardonic Dionysus, and a couple of Whedon regulars dropping by for comic relief. Thank Zeus for small favors.