Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Percy Jackson, Sea of Monsters: Mythbegotten

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG, for fantasy action violence
By Derrick Bang

Conventional wisdom suggests the value of a winning formula.

Movie studies, infamous for getting things bass-ackwards, sometimes cling to a losing formula.

Having successfully invaded Polyphemus' lair and snatched the fabled Golden Fleece,
our young heroes — from left, Tyson (Douglas Smith), Clarisse (Levin Rambin), Grover
(Brandon T. Jackson), Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Percy (Logan Lerman) —
discover that keeping their prize will be even more difficult.
2010’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief offered fabulous monsters, slick special effects and an A-list cast of cameo players ... and nothing else. The film was dumb, soulless and atrociously acted; the entire cast delivered every line with smirking condescension, as if mocking the material as a waste of time. Needless to say, if the actors don’t seem to believe in what they’re doing, we certainly won’t.

Critics dismissed the film with contempt, and it was justifiably loathed by fans of Rick Riordan’s teen-lit fantasy series; Craig Titley’s snarky script completely failed to respect the source novel. The biggest surprise? Chris Columbus occupied the director’s chair, and you’d certainly think that the guy who helmed the first two Harry Potter movies would understand how to bring fantasy to the big screen.

You’d think.

Despite earning only $89 million in the States — on a budget of $95, which qualifies as a failure — the results were far better worldwide, with a final tally of $226 million. Those numbers spell S-E-Q-U-E-L, despite everybody’s recognition that they were dealing with a dog.

And so now we’re graced with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters ... which offers fabulous monsters and slick special effects, and is dumb, soulless and atrociously acted. Despite the presence of a new director (Thor Freudenthal) and scripter (Marc Guggenheim), little has changed. The young stars may be three years more mature, but their performances haven’t improved much. And it’s rather telling that the first film’s big names — Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson and Catherine Keener — opted out this time.

Indeed, we never catch the barest glimpse of the Olympian gods who played such an important role in the first film. Oh, they’re mentioned here, now and then, but that’s it. Instead of Zeus, Hades, Poseidon and Medusa, we get Hermes and Dionysus. Our favorite centaur, Chiron, now is played by Anthony Head (a fan favorite from the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), rather than Brosnan. Although I’ve no desire to slight the talents of the esteemed Mr. Head, whose work I admire, one gets the distinct impression that these filmmakers settled for the B Team.

Freudenthal deserves credit for attempting a more serious tone; he mostly eliminated the smug atmosphere that poisoned the first film. But Guggenheim’s script takes even more liberties with the second entry in Riordan’s book series, leaving us with an “adaptation” in name only. I’m sure Riordan's fans will be equally unhappy.

As we learned in the first adventure, Percy (Logan Lerman) is a demigod, the mixed-race result of a dalliance between Poseidon, god of the sea, and a human mother. The latter role was played by Keener in the first film, and she’s neither seen nor mentioned here ... which is rather bizarre, considering how hard Percy worked to save her, three years ago.

Anyway, Percy has settled into a comfortable routine at the rather demeaningly named Camp Half-Blood, alongside best friends Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena; and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), his satyr (half man, half goat) protector. Like Lerman, Daddario and Jackson reprise their roles, which is a comfortable bit of continuity.

For reasons the film series never really makes clear, various mythological creatures wish to kill these demigod younglings, and they’re only safe behind the protective barrier that surrounds Camp Half-Blood. But as this story opens, the magic tree that generates the barrier has been poisoned, leaving the camp increasingly exposed. The tree must be saved, and only the fabled Golden Fleece can handle that task.

Worse yet, this calamity has been orchestrated by Luke (Jake Abel), the petulant son of Hermes, who caused all the trouble in the previous adventure. As we learned, Luke has serious “daddy abandonment” issues, which turned him evil; his temper tantrums don’t seem to have improved.

Finding the Golden Fleece falls to Clarisse (Levin Rambin), daughter of Ares (god of war), an impressively resourceful and highly competitive fighter who has become the bane of Percy’s existence. Apparently saving the world three years ago is yesterday’s news, and of late Percy has come to doubt his skills and worthiness. On top of which, Poseidon seems to have lost interest in his demigod son.

Percy’s discomfort increases when the camp’s newest arrival, Tyson (Douglas Smith), turns out to be his half-brother. As it happens, Tyson also is a cyclops, a race regarded with derision at best, and hostility at worst. Annabeth, in particular, has cause to distrust Tyson on sight ... and, truth be told, the “ocularly challenged” lad is something of a bumbling screw-up.

Despite being passed over in favor of Clarisse, Percy opts to seek the Golden Fleece anyway, thanks to his concern about an ill-fated prophecy. Annabeth and Grover naturally join him, as does Tyson (much to Annabeth’s disgust). And then it’s heigh-ho, off to the dread “Sea of Monsters” — which we mortals know as the Bermuda Triangle — and the lair of Polyphemus, the genuinely nasty cyclops who possesses the fleece.

Unlike their first adventure, which involved some puzzle-solving and continental hopping, this time Percy and his friends just sorta bumble and stumble into a series of calamities. Guggenheim’s narrative doesn’t actually flow; it lurches from one contrived scene to the next, giving the entire film a sense of things being improvised on the spot.

Far worse something that always aggravates me, when it comes to badly conceived fantasy: the fact that our heroes — and their adversaries — are only as weak, or as strong, as they need to be, at any given moment. When pressed, for example, Percy can summon and ride a gigantic ocean wave, which seems a nifty way to travel in general, not to mention an easy way to dispatch any pursuers. Strange, then, that Percy doesn’t rely on this trick more frequently.

It’s also rather peculiar that all these demigods and demigoddesses — offspring of the Olympian gods, and therefore blessed with intriguing talents and powers — inevitably resort to primitive swordplay and fisticuffs, whenever a battle brews.

One also must question Luke’s intelligence: For a bad guy determined to obtain the Golden Fleece for his own ends, you’d think he would recognize the folly of setting up shop on a yacht in the middle of the ocean, where he’s most vulnerable to Poseidon’s powers! Obviously, Luke skipped his classes in Secret Lair 101.

And speaking of powers, Percy also is gifted with magic shipping tape, which causes anything outlined to vanish: a handy gadget indeed, yet one that he uses only once ... after which, it’s left behind like every other detail in this maladroit script.

Guggenheim and Freudenthal also are guilty of bald theft, in the matter of a magical taxi driven by the three blind “Gray Sisters,” who share but one eye between them. Percy and his friends manage to snag a timely ride in a sequence that plays very much like a certain young wizard’s ride aboard the Knight Bus, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

While I’m at it, another question: If the Gray Sisters’ taxi descends from the sky as swirling lights when summoned, why doesn’t it travel that way? Why race in and out of conventional traffic, on roadways ... except to provide viewers with another meaningless special-effects sequence?

Although Lerman has dropped the haughty disdain that clouded his previous outing as Percy Jackson, he still treats this role like a larkish joke (or, perhaps, like a paycheck). He’s clearly capable of much better, having delivered such a sensitive performance in last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Apparently, he views this series as slumming.

Jackson once again makes Grover little more than cloven-hoofed comic relief, and Abel’s “acting” is limited to a villainous sneer; we’ve absolutely no sense of Luke as a character. Smith delivers some emotional depth as the hapless, one-eyed Tyson, but his saga — his desire to bond with Percy — isn’t well integrated with the rest of the narrative.

Daddario suffers the worst fate; Annabeth was a smart, resourceful fighter in the previous film, but here she’s demoted to a useless girl-in-peril ... a role she doesn’t play with any enthusiasm. All of Annabeth’s previous warrior skills have been transferred to Clarisse, played by Rambin as a patronizing, sword-wielding Gossip Girl. One expects her to start a waspish discussion about the latest in designer armor.

An unexpected ray of sunshine comes from Nathan Fillion, popping up in a small role as Hermes, the fleet-footed emissary and messenger of the gods. Fillion gives the right light-hearted touch to this role; it’s a shame he’s on camera for only five minutes.

Stanley Tucci also has a few droll moments as “Mr. D” (Dionysus), one of Camp Half-Blood’s mentors, who bemoans his rather cruel punishment at Zeus’ hands. But like everything else in this film, Tucci’s role is under-written, and he’s never allowed to make much of it.

In terms of visual spectacle, effects supervisor Cameron Waldbauer deserves top marks for his realization of Charybdis, one of the nastiest monsters in Greek mythology. (Scylla, in contrast, gets no more than lip service.) The “fake” 3D effects, however, are a complete waste of time. And as often is the case with 3D layered onto a film after the fact, the most noticeable result is a darkened color palette; it often seems like cinematographer Shelly Johnson filmed through black gauze.

As with its predecessor, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is a family-friendly romp with plenty of ooky-spooky creatures, and nary a whiff of objectionable content; parents can feel safe watching it with their children. But “safe” doesn’t mean engaging; this film is sloppy, derivative and half-baked fantasy at its most infantile ... so I suspect young viewers will snicker even more than any adults unlucky enough to tag along.

No comments:

Post a Comment