In Percy Jackson, the Mythic Gets Standardized
How would those Bronze Age storytellers who shaped and handed down the myths of Ancient Greece fare in a modern screenwriting seminar? All that elusive, improvisatory strangeness, that alien sense of causality, that emphasis on origins, not just of franchisable characters but of everything in the natural world, right down to the sea foam that came into being when the Titan Kronos ripped off his father's genitals and chucked them into the surf, birthing Aphrodite from the union of ocean and sperm.
Hesiod's madness, I fear, would have to be expurgated, made explicable, the ore of folklore pounded into the salable tchotchke of Young Adult plotting. In Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Kronos lives and rages, an igneous marvel of special effects, but if he's still into hilarious castrations, this sleepy PG kids' adventure doesn't dare hint at it. He's a Titan in name only, a dumb stomping monster rather than some unknowable force from creation's dawn. Unlike weird, discursive myth, screenwriting is too economical to allow his rampaging to build to something disgusting or ridiculous or beautiful. He's not even afforded an inventive defeat, being brought down by — spoiler, presuming you give a shit — the same dumb sword Percy Jackson has carried since movie one, Percy Jackson and the Derp of Derp. Here, killing the father of goddamn Zeus is less a to-do than kabooming the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
It's a compliment, I guess, that the stubborn familiarity of this conclusion — all noble sacrifices and meaningless resurrections — is capable of disappointing. That means the beginning and middle managed to raise some hopes, if not quite expectations. Before it descends into Percy Jackson and the Things That Happen in Movies Like This, the adventure at times clicks into the inventive groove of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels, which at their best are touched with the high strangeness of the ancient tales that inspire them. (The books, about the offspring of the Greek gods and mortals, rarely feel like off-brand Harry Potter the way the movies do.)
Jackson's mission is to filch the Golden Fleece from a Cyclops in the Bermuda Triangle. To that end, director Thor Freudenthal stages a rousing attack by a clockwork bull, a gears-and-fury beast whose mouth hinges open to reveal a flamethrower, and presents a magical animated infodump where all the gods of Olympus are rendered in stained glass. (Hey, if it's good enough for one god, it's good enough for all of them!)
The Stygian witches turn up as cab drivers in a frenetic goof of a sequence, squabbling as always over that lone eyeball and suggesting the free-spirited grossness of Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. Then there are the sea-beasts: first, a beauty of a swimming horse, streaked like that Fruit Stripes zebra, and then the great maw, stomach, and guts of Charybdis herself, who it turns out is responsible for every boat and plane that's gone missing in the North Atlantic. To escape her digestive tract, Jackson mans the machine guns of a U-boat crewed by the living corpses of Confederate soldiers — a development that the film, to its credit, never attempts to explain. And the villainous Cyclops is a treat, the heroes' encounter with him smartly shot and just the right amount of scary.
Much of the rest is a deadly bore, with the too-old-to-pass-for-teens stars playing characters with one trait apiece — and failing to bring that trait to life. Usually when you see actors this pretty and this vacant standing around this awkwardly, you expect them to take their clothes off. Logan Lerman's Jackson exhibits none of the troubled complexity of the ADHD-addled boy of the books; the filmmakers forget key tenets of his character just as often as the movie's villains forget the basics of his parentage. Seriously, if you kidnapped the son of Poseidon, would you imprison him on a yacht — in the ocean?
The god-kids all live together in a summer camp called Not-Hogwarts, where counselor Dionysus (Stanley Tucci, as funny as the script allows) dresses like Captain Lou Albano and moans that angry Zeus changes all his wine into water. The kids, meanwhile, compete in elaborate wall-climbing contests right out of the Real World/Road Rules Challenge. Then the story starts, with a ferocious attack on their camp — and Percy's dear, smart friend Not-Hermione (Alexandra Daddario) figuring out (on her iPad!) that the Fleece of the Argonauts is the only way to stop the blah blah something something.
Not-Hermione's one trait: She hates Cyclops, for reasons the books make clear but the movie can't be buggered about. That means, of course, a young Cyclops spawn must tag along on the adventure, and Not-Hermione gets to glower at him and then learn a lesson about not judging people just because they're monsters. This Cyclops is just another kid-flick hunk, this one with white-boy dreads like he's in some one-eyed jam band. The story contrives to give him a human set of peepers for about half the movie, and much of the rest of the time, he's wearing sunglasses, which is a perfect encapsulation of modern screenwriting's approach to rich, inscrutable myth: "A Cyclops? Love it! But does he have to have one eye?"
Also, 3D has never been more wasted.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.