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Non-Review Review: Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters demonstrates just how lucky the Harry Potter films were when it came to casting teenage performers. As a movie series centred around the off-spring of Greek deities, the movie relies on the charisma of its leads to sell the premise. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite up to the task. While none of the performers are terrible or wooden, the film drags to a hault when the teenage actors are asked to carry a scene. As a result, a quiet boat ride in the middle of the film seems interminable, and a heart-to-heart before the climax feels overlong.

None of the cast are assisted by a script from Marc Guggenheim. Guggenheim is capable of a well-placed zinger, and the movie offers its fair share of wit, but everything about the movie feels pandering and simplistic, as if Guggenheim doesn’t trust his audience to pick up on the plot points if they aren’t painstakingly catalogued and repeatedly spelt out with cringe-worthy dialogue. Indeed, Guggenheim’s desire to slow everything down so he can repeatedly explain what’s going on only adds to the pacing issues caused by the weak leads.

It’s a shame, because the adult cast seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, and there’s something quite charming about the idea of “demi-googling” as a means of retrieving information.

Another stab at a Percy Jackson film...

Another stab at a Percy Jackson film…

The best moments in Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters feature veteran performers. Stanley Tucci is great fun as a god demoted to summer camp manager, complete with flamboyant shirt and reckless indifference towards his young charges. Tucci seems to having a great deal of fun in the role, and the movie sparkles every time he appears on screen. Anthony Head slips back effortlessly into the role of a sage old advisor to a bunch of reckless kids, even though he’s given little to do aside from offer vague insight into the obligatory “chosen one” prophecy.

Nathan Fillon also works well as a more modern version of Hermes. Naturally, he’s running a secret organisation just behind the friendly veneer of UPS. As one expects, Fillon is witty and irreverent, playful and cheeky. In one of the film’s wittier moments, he laments the passing of a cult television show that none of the kids recognise. “Best show ever,” he boasts. “So, naturally, cancelled.” He all but arches his eyebrows and stares into the camera.

Swimming with not!sharks...

Swimming with not!sharks…

It’s the kind of thing that few actors could get away with, and the adult cast of Sea of Monsters is packed with these sorts of self-aware performances. It makes for a nice contrast with the Harry Potter films, which were also filled with adult actors who were consciously hamming it up for the camera – but in a different way. The self-aware cheesiness ofthe adult cast in Sea of Monsters stands in contrast to the grand-standing poise of the Harry Potter films.

It’s a shame that the adults are relegated to minor supporting roles. For the rest of the film, the teenage leads are asked to carry the film. To be fair, they aren’t helped by an over-loaded script. The movie can’t seem to decide whether Percy’s new half-brother, the cyclops Tyson, or returning character Grover is meant to be the comic relief. While the film eventually decides to shunt one off into a subplot where they are quickly forgotten, the film feels a little too padded. It doesn’t help that jokes around Tyson fall flat.

It's weird what people keep in their attics...

It’s weird what people keep in their attics…

Brandon T. Jackson is a much stronger comedic performer than Douglas Smith, but the script never really manages to define Tyson or explain why we should care for him. Indeed, all the character development in Sea of Monsters feels a little shallow. Percy’s friend Clarisse hates the cyclops, carrying a cliché prejudice with the most basic of motivations. The movie practically signposts how that character arc will play out, but there’s no nuance to it, no sophistication. Neither Guggenheim nor actress Levin Rambin can find the heart of the character.

Similarly, the contrast between our plucky hero and our nasty villain falls flat. Guggenheim over-plays the teenage angst. There’s something playful in the way that Percy’s insecurity mirrors that of anybody crafting a sequel to a successful work – the gnawing fear of being a “one quest wonder” – but it’s played so broad and generic that it never resonates. The movie’s villain remains nothing more than a two-dimensional antagonist with daddy issues. We’re meant to believe in him as a wounded little boy, but actor Jake Abel is able to channel nothing more than one-note villainy into his portrayal.

Talk about a disappointing ark...

Talk about a disappointing ark…

Indeed, the best thing about Abel’s turn in the role is that his blonde hair and black outfit makes the climax’s reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark even more overt. There are little moments of self-awareness where Sea of Monsters seems to be on the cusp of becoming something better. The grim realisation that our heroes are not being circled by sharks, for example, or an absurd piece of physical education which makes Charles Xavier look like a responsible father figure. When Sea of Monsters engages with – and relishes – these pulpy little moments.

These moments occur frequently enough to keep the film from stumbling too much under its own weight. The decision, for example, to build a creepy abandoned amusement park on top of Polyphemus is ingenious. There’s really no way that it makes sense, and the characters cleverly acknowledge just how crazy building a theme park on an island populated by a flesh-eating cyclops is. The film could do with more moments like that, and less cliché dialogue like “I was worried she was gonna say that” after a lead character decides to take a necessary risk.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

Sea of Monsters is tepid, at best. It never comes together cohesively. The young cast lack the gravitas, and the script the finesse, to anchor the movie. However, there are moments of scattershot genius littered throughout the picture, as if shed from a movie that was a bit less uneven and bit more fun.

7 Responses

  1. First of all you should read the books and the actors were great and above all it is great

  2. To be fair the actors playing Percy and Annabeth had improved in acting compared to the first movie. I didn’t recognize them. Maybe that’s why it took 3 years before they can do the 2nd movie. Their young actors needed more acting lessons.

    • There is that, I suppose. But still, it makes you appreciate how (relatively) lucky the Harry Potter films were. None of the ensemble were junior Oliviers, but they could act.

  3. I am just wondering when this moron of a director is going to actually follow the books! He seems to take only snipits of each book and put them together as if tossed into a blender. Add to that the terrible acting and you get a disappointed audience. I was hoping it would get better after terrible reviews of the first movie had the same complaints. Obviously the director has their own agenda for this movie series.

    • Following the books is not necessarily an indicator of quality? Film and novels are different media, with different rules and strengths and conventions. What works in one doesn’t necessarily work in the other.

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