My teenage son has read every one of the Rick Riordan Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, and as our family watched “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” the sequel to the 2010 fantasy-adventure “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief,” he couldn’t contain himself. He offered a running commentary:
“It’s like they compressed the next three books into one movie.”
“None of this was in the books.”
“This WAS in the books, and it’s actually handled pretty well.”
“I like the way the manticore moves. It’s really realistic.”
“The CGI in this movie is much better than the first one.”
And so on.
His final assessment surprised me, partly because he had seen the trailer and pronounced it “dumb,” and partly because many fans of the young adult books have pretty much washed their hands of the movies because of how different they are. “Better than the first one,” he said, “with better special effects. It’s not the same as the books, but still good. I’d give it a 7 or 7.5 out of 10.”
My daughter, a pre-teen, hadn’t read the books and thought this movie and the original were equally entertaining. So did my wife.
I’m deliberately including their opinions first because they’re the audience that matters. If they don’t like the film versions, there’s no family movie night. We pull the plug and move on to something else.
The negative publicity that this film received seems to me about as unfair as the wave of criticism that preceded “The Lone Ranger.” The CGI effects ARE better, for the most part. The only visual shortcomings were the forehead and eye design of Percy’s half-brother, the cyclops Tyson (Douglas Smith)—which looked smeared with Vaseline in medium shots—and the gang’s descent into the toothy vortex of a sea monster, which also was less than realistic. Everything else—and that includes some pretty fantastic creatures and water effects—looks convincing, and in truth it’s the visual effects that propel the film.
Good thing, because the plot can get a little confusing. In fairness, the same could be said about The Sea of Monsters, the book this film is mostly based upon. The film-version Percy, you’ll recall, is older than the 13-year-old hero of Riordan’s books, but here, as in the book, the half-mortal son of Poseidon is saved by a half-brother he never knew existed until now. At Camp Half-Blood, the only safe haven for Percy and the other demigods, the tree that sprung from Thalia’s sacrifice becomes poisoned and the protective barrier is compromised. To save her and all the demigods from outside forces that want to kill them, Percy and friends Annabeth (Alexandara Daddario), Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), Tyson, and a rival named Clarisse (Leven Rambin) search for the Golden Fleece of old, which has the power to heal and restore. Also, as in the book, the evil demigod Luke (Jake Abel) is after the same prize, but for selfish reasons.
If you’re looking for an absolutely faithful book-to-screen transformation, you won’t find it here. In the film version, the Titan god Kronos is plucked from future volumes and plays a major role in the unfolding mayhem. There are other major differences, but I won’t play the spoiler game. A chaotic plot is bolstered by frenetic action and visual effects, and that makes all the difference in this strange part-Olympian world—and a surprising veneer of humor gives it all a tongue-in-cheek quality that’s lacking in other fantasy series. The actors aren’t as charismatic as those in the “Harry Potter” films, but they’re likeable enough.
“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” is rated PG for “fantasy action violence, some scary images and mild language, and it has a runtime of 106 minutes. It’s also available on 3D Blu-ray combo pack.
“Sea of Monsters” looks pretty terrific in 1080p, especially considering all the low-lit scenes and sequences that could have turned to mud. But the level of detail is excellent, and in brighter scenes you can see that the colors are rich and robust and skin-tones are natural looking. Apart from that soft-focus upper face of Tyson, it’s an often-underlit but sharply defined collection of visual images. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. The cover says that “Sea of Monsters” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but it measures out to be closer to 2.35:1.
The audio is an extremely lively and immersive English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that doesn’t just split the sound seven ways. There’s a nice logic operational in the sound mix that creates a nice, believable sense of directionality across the sound field. Rear speakers are actively, not tokenly involved, and the base has enough heft to it in cataclysmic moments so that you can feel the vibrations. Additional audio options are an English Descriptive 5.1 and Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surrounds, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
It seems as if many film adaptations are deliberately avoiding book-to-film bonus features, as if not to further infuriate fans of the series. Here there’s nothing at all about the Riordan series—only 20 minutes worth of brief snippets about various aspects of the film and filming. “Tyson Motion Comic” is a low-level animated feature about Percy’s half-Cyclops, half-Poseidon sired brother; “Deconstructing a Demigod” offers four minutes of cast giving what amounts to pre-release promo clips about their characters; “Back to Camp Half-Blood” is a two-minute featurette about the growing closeness the cast is feeling; and “It’s All in the Eye” talks about those disappointing cyclops special effects. Other than that, the only bonus features are two theatrical trailers.
“Harry Potter” remains the high-water mark for young adult books turned into fantasy films, but that series became problematic for some families because it began with a PG rating and gradually grew darker and more violent and traumatizing, making it an awkward choice for families with younger children. The “Percy Jackson” series continues to appeal to a broad audience with its PG rating, violence blunted by humor, and a growing sense that even people who die might not necessarily be dead. After all, these folks are part immortal.
“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” is a good special effects family movie that’s every bit as accomplished as “The Lightning Thief” and possibly better—even if it doesn’t follow the fantasy novels like a road map.