So far as “Harry Potter” knock-offs went, 2010’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” was a tolerable effort that put a clever-enough spin on Greek mythology while otherwise strictly adhering to the Joseph Campbell playbook of reluctant heroes, mystical powers and ancient prophecies. “Thief” didn’t set the domestic box office on fire, but its overseas performance seems to have justified a similarly adequate follow-up in the form of “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.”
Being a demigod, Percy (Logan Lerman) has some unresolved daddy issues -- namely, that Poseidon doesn’t really keep in touch anymore and that he was unaware of having a cyclops half-brother, Tyson (Douglas Smith), until now. Tyson’s arrival at Camp Half-Blood (read: Not Hogwarts) is soon followed by an attack on the camp and its protective barrier by lightning-thieving scallywag Luke (Jake Abel), and it’s up to Percy, Tyson, demigoddess Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and token satyr friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) to fetch the Golden Fleece from the Bermuda Triangle if they hope to save the world, let alone the camp.
Percy gripes about being “a one-quest wonder,” Annabeth holds a slightly racist grudge against the one-eyed likes of Tyson, and Grover vanishes for much of the middle as exposition and excitement are doled out at regular intervals. The plot is nothing new -- good guys and bad guys want the same mythical object -- although “Wrath of the Titans” recently did the whole resurrecting-Kronos plotline and the climax here reeks of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Along the way, we get mechanized fire-breathing bulls, magical cab rides that owe a great debt to “Harry Potter’s” Knight Bus silliness, cross-dressing satyrs, fantastical tape guns, tie-dye fish-horse whatsits and even more magical nonsense.
For this film, director Thor Fruedenthal (“Hotel for Dogs,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) takes the reins from Chris Columbus and makes surprisingly adept use of digital effects throughout given those smaller, simpler films that came before. Lerman, Jackson, Daddario and Smith are all blandly compatible, with Abel reprising his Barry Pepper Jr. sneer during his villainous monologues, while Leven Rambin’s Clarisse attempts to offer a cockier counterpart to Percy’s flagging reputation. (Naturally, she’s the daughter of Ares, god of war.) A bit livelier are too-fleeting appearances by veteran actors Stanley Tucci (as Dionysus, director of Camp Half-Blood) and Nathan Fillion (as Hermes, Luke’s father and fan of cancelled TV shows, cough); meanwhile, Anthony Head replaces Pierce Brosnan and you’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference in sage mentorship.
We get the usual world-ending stakes, combined with the rampant invincibility that tends to cancel out said tension while appeasing worrisome young fans of Rick Riordan’s book series. So what’s left to make “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” memorable? Precious little, I must admit, but it’s the odd touch of local color -- like the backdrop of an abandoned amusement park, or the arrival of a Civil War steamer crewed by Confederate zombies -- that makes these routine acts of derring-do a bit easier to bear.
SCORE: 6.6 / 10