The Sea of Amusement

[For those of you who have been following all 20 revisions, as a disclaimer, if you’re going to be up until 2 am critiquing a movie, don’t say to yourself, “I can get the next review in on 2 hours of sleep.”  Ever.  Mea Culpa.  Ahem…]

I was pleasantly surprised last night by Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters.  When I walked into the theater I knew a handful of facts.  I cannot stand Riordan’s book series.  “Look, I’m re-doing Harry Potter with Greek instead of English lore, so you can’t sue me, Rowling!” sums up my take on the series from book one (the only one I could choke down, and I enjoy children’s stories).  Other problems I had with the books were plausibility (I’m supposed to believe that a single phone-call will get multiple federal agencies hunting an pre-adolescent boy as a terrorist, instead of getting laughed off the phone?!) and frankly, Percy was the only character remotely sympathetic.  The first movie was much better, because the inevitable shedding of 50% of any novel in order to squeeze it into a 2-hour film got rid of most things I hate.  The effects were fun, and Logan Lerman’s Percy versus Jake Abel’s Luke was a fine if unoriginal knock-off (For goodness sakes we even had a Potter-esque short brown-haired kid facing off against a rich-boy blond bully.  *Face Palm*).

I went to see Sea of Monsters because there was nothing else out (though Red 2 is worth watching twice) new this weekend, and because a friend recommended it.

So, take all of that negative anticipation in mind when I said I had a lot of fun!  Sea of Monsters is a quintessential summer romp.  It doesn’t pretend to be a serious action movie, or a deep self-examination.

So many things were right about this movie:

Someone in the production team was wise enough to realize that you can’t sell genuine teen angst or heavy drama in a story about a summer-camp for demigods (remember, a hidden school was taken!), so even though the drama is about the end of the world, it never touches on the banter or the fun.  Walking through Washington DC, no one looked around and pulled a Sarah Connor (“You’re dead, you’re all dead!”).  They were concerned about getting a ride and a quick drink.  Accept that the world can’t end because it wouldn’t be any fun, and you can sit back and enjoy an excellent romp full of small character sketches.

For the second time this week I’m throwing out props to supporting cast.  Some actors with serious chops laid down their dignity for some summer entertainment, and I’m glad they did!  Anthony Head’s Chiron was delightful and a wonderful straight man for Stanly Tucci’s Mr. D (what kid wants to learn to spell Dionysus?) within the camp.  Tucci has the best one-liner in a movie FULL of quick banter, and no, I’m not telling so go see it yourself.  Nathan Fillion’s guest appearance as Hermes was delightfully self-mocking (he shows up in a brown shirt and tan shorts, a deliberate call-back to Serenity.  And they make sure he’s shot from the side a lot to show that 50+ pounds later Firefly’s Captain Tight-Pants really needs to spend the rest of his life in generous, forgiving suits, then they put him in a generous, forgiving suit.) but a touch sympathetic.  The little-g god of wisdom is the only Olympian self-aware enough to acknowledge he’s a crappy dad whose son’s pain is largely his fault, and asks Percy to be his messenger of compassion to Luke.

Oh yeah, Luke the bad guy from last film is back, and the chemistry between the young demigods is delightful!  Diverging from Harry Potter (finally!) the relationship between Luke and Percy is much more Luke/Vader from Return of the Jedi.  They know and care about each other on some level, and that compassion flows through their interactions even though they’re committed to opposite ends.  At seventeen and twenty-three respectively, Lerman and Abel weren’t able to pull that off in the first movie, but three years later both the actors and the characters have matured nicely, or the movie wouldn’t have been nearly so enjoyable.  It fits the story very well as all the demigods lived and grew up together as friendly rivals, now forced to choose sides on the brink of adulthood.  (Once again this wouldn’t have worked if the producers had cast actual 12-year-olds instead of college graduates.)

In fact, and I feel guilty because an aspiring critic is Not Supposed to Say Such Things, all of the chemistry in this story works.  Cyclopean half-brother Tyson, played by Douglas Smith, is as tender-hearted and sympathetically needy as any abandoned kid could be while towering over the rest of the cast (no easy task, but an excellent performance by Douglas Smith.)  Alexandro Daddario and Levan Rambin turn in a pair of strong young women as Annabeth and Clarisse, and portray two different but valid interpretations of feminine strength.  Brandon T. Jackson’s Grover has matured from manic to witty, and God bless the writers who delivered him from the goat-jokes.

It’s an action movie, so I get to actually talk about the fight choreography!  Director Thor Freudenthal had a cast full of demigods who spent their whole lives training to be action heroes (or is that Heroes).  There were really two ways he could go with that, a Twilight-Esque wire-work extravaganza or understated human bad-assery.  The fighting is a great bait-and-switch since the opening games at Camp Half-Blood (still can’t say that without a shudder) are as flippy as any wire-work aficionado could want, but the fights between demigods are solid, human, and believable for the rest of the film, (a little mix of combatives and acrobatics mostly, a very believable mix for anyone who’s knows where we got Pancracean and the word gymnastics…) all the more appreciated since we know Freudenthal has wires and isn’t afraid to use them.

The deliberate decision to focus on the real humanity of the demigods saved this movie for me.  Percy isn’t wracked with existential angst (though he nods at it) as much as he cares that his dad doesn’t seem to care or listen to him.  I thoroughly believed that priority for the character.  Tyson isn’t wracked with fear that he’s going to grow up to be a hero-eating monster.  He just wants his only living family to connect with him.  And the daughter of the goddess of wisdom has some growing up to do about her own prejudices as well.  So in what could have been a mindless story of static characters had some good growth and relationships.

Critics have attacked both cliches and stolen ideas in this movie.  I heard a quote once, “If you’re stealing from more than five sources, it’s research!”  This movie doesn’t borrow, or even steal.  It commits grand larceny of visual ideas and mounts them on the walls like trophies.  The raging mechanical bull combined delightful nods to The Last Unicorn and the clockwork god-things from the original Clash of the Titans.  But don’t worry, whatever your favorite movie is, I’m pretty sure there’s something from it in here.  (My favorite stolen scene was from Pinnochio and Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood.)  At some point you have to stop being embarrassed and enjoy the trip down memory lane.  And as for those critics who have gotten in a twist that the story deviated from Greek mythology (really, it’s a summer-camp for demigods and you’re upset that a cyclops is fireproof?!?!) I’m not sure what movie they thought they were seeing, but they’d obviously never read the series or watched the first film.  If that’s what you’re upset about go rage at the Titans remakes, or I hear there are some excellent discussion boards quibbling about the existence of the historical Homer.  We’re here to have fun at a summer flick.  Serious movies come out in January, duh (not entirely true, NorEaster is a recently released riveting drama but it was filmed in winter at least).

There are things that don’t work in this film.  There are gaps in logic you can drive a mule through.  In one scene Percy needs Tyson’s help to get to a boat, and several scenes later he flies across the ocean like a watery version of Iceman from the X-Men comics.  If this were any less light-hearted, logic problems like that would have blown big holes in my approval, but it was so enjoyable I shrugged it off and enjoyed the film.

You should, too.

(There are only 2 scenes that really needed to be 3D, so if you’re a visual-arts geek or a computer programmer, you might want to see those scenes, otherwise, save some cash and catch the 2D version.)

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