Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Cinema File #274: "Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters" Review

Recently, I reviewed the new superhero film Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s latest foray into a world of magic and fantasy, you know, except for all the magic and fantasy. With my hopes for a rip-roaring adventure steeped in ancient mythology dashed by so many laser cannons and holograms, I decided to catch up on a movie I missed upon its initial release a few months ago, that promised to be a bit more open with its ties to mystical antiquity. I skipped Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters originally because unlike Thor, I had not seen the first movie in the series, but I found that there wasn’t really too much about the new sequel that couldn’t be grasped on the fly, and while its clearly geared towards a younger audience in need of a post-Harry Potter magical teenager fix, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to get out of it.

Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters follows the titular magic wielding boy hero, the demigod son of the Greek god Poseidon, as he goes off on an adventure with a group of similarly myth-centric friends to find the legendary Golden Fleece in order to save their secret demigod community from the threats posed by the outside world. Okay, maybe it is a little convoluted for newcomers, but in execution its easy enough to pick up and the premise is actually kind of interesting, and even a little salacious for what is otherwise basically a kid’s movie. The whole set up of hundreds of teenage half-god children living together in a secret camp is predicated on the notion that not only do the Greek gods of myth exist and continue to operate in the present day, but apparently they are incredibly horny, and have little compunction about pulling a Zeus, transforming into mortal form to find human women to magically bone.

I alluded above to a common criticism related to this franchise, that its little more than a poor man’s Harry Potter, and while I’d say after watching it that its at least a bit better than that, the similarities are sometimes too obvious. The kids are literally called half-bloods, and since the protagonist is the son of celestial royalty, he could easily be described as the half-blood prince. Instead of a wand we get a pen that transforms into a sword, instead of poly juice potion we get Mist, which conceals monstrous affectations, and instead of the invisibility cloak we get the aforementioned fleece, which heals any injury it covers. The movie also regrettably shares one of the big issues I had with the Potter series, wherein the supernatural elements are often introduced in an arbitrary fashion, as if they just needed to enhance a scene with something weird and fantastical and it didn’t really matter what it was.

Where this movie excels is in its visual presentation. I can’t say if the first movie is the same, but if this film is any indication, the Percy Jackson franchise seems to be built around a series of increasingly fun set pieces wrapped around the flimsiest of connective tissue you could conceivably call a plot. If I had expected more, I might have had a problem with the lack of substance, but by the end, I was able to take it in stride and accept it for what it was, which given the target audience isn’t as bad as most big budget fantasy movies, which are just as shallow when they really shouldn’t be. A literal mechanical bull, a massive Lovecraftian mouth in the middle of the ocean, a scorpion tailed Manticore, a near sighted cyclops, and a giant Titan made of constantly reforming volcanic rock are the highlights, and while the special effects were maybe a bit chintzier, the staging and level of excitement generated were far and away better than the much bigger budgeted fantasy epic I saw this week.

As a story, Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters is fairly rote and predictable with just enough novel bits here and there and enough references to Greek mythology to carry any fantasy geek through to the end. As a Harry Potter substitute, which is to say a lesser version of a franchise I didn’t even like in the first place, it seems like it would be more than suitable to the kinds of teens and tweens it was made for, and maybe even a little more accessible to new viewers not steeped so nerdily in the canon of the novel series its based on. The Harry Potter mold is one of a few big high concept book to movie trends dominating sci-fi/fantasy cinema of late, the next most prevalent being clones of Twilight, so we can’t really be too picky at this point. I mean, we’ve only got so many Hunger Games movies left, so I’ll take barely post-pubescent demi-gods while I can get them.

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