There's a rampaging bull in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters that looks like something an 11-year-old boy might draw on the back of his math homework when he should be paying attention to his teacher.
The villainous beast is gold, has steampunk innards and opens its mouth to reveal a giant flame thrower. This bad guy is boss, rad, hella sweet, or whatever sixth-grader slang for "cool" is in 2013.
The same can be said for much of the second Percy Jackson movie, which is outgunned by summer movies with larger budgets and bigger names in the cast. Pierce Brosnan doesn't return from 2010's Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, leaving Stanley Tucci as the biggest star. But the sequel effectively executes its simple vision: to provide clever PG entertainment for preteens whose parents are too strict to let them watch The Wolverine.
Logan Lerman returns as Percy, the son of Poseidon, who hangs in Camp Half-Blood with other teen-age god-spawn and fantastic creatures. The tree-deity that protects this little retreat of raging hormones is threatened, so Percy and his friends go on a journey to seek the healing powers of a Golden Fleece.
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Sea of Monsters, based on Rick Riordan's young adult novel, weaves Greek mythology with modern updates. Tucci, as Dionysus, is the camp director. God of commerce and speed Hermes (a nice cameo by Nathan Fillion) runs the overnight delivery company Olympic Postal Service. When our heroes must storm a boat, it's a luxury yacht. They reach their destination on the back of a mythological creature called a hippocamp, which looks like the result of an amorous relationship between a racehorse and a rainbow trout.
The special effects occasionally fall closer to Sharknado than Pacific Rim, but director Thor Freudenthal does a good job of stretching the budget. A flashback scene is animated with a stained-glass technique. A giant obstacle-course play structure, reminiscent of TV's Wipeout, is an effective practical effect.
Early scenes take the orphan fantasies of Harry Potter and the X-Men and up the ante. Most of these kids have a god for a dad and a mother who is completely out of the picture. (We don't see any care packages filled with cookies and fresh underwear sent to Camp Half-Blood.) A notorious hard-partying wine drinker runs the camp. What 12-year-old in the audience wouldn't sign up for that?
Percy Jackson lacks a central bad guy, and the quest starts to develop the dopey procedural feel of a Scooby-Doo episode — amplified by the addition of a shaggy Cyclops boy (Douglas Smith), who creates new obstacles for the protagonists with his cluelessness. Cynical moviegoers will note that many Half-Blood campers look as if they're in their late 20s. Big parts of the book are missing, replaced by awkward edits.
Discriminating adults might find the dialogue groan-worthy. ("It's not cool to Bogart someone else's quest!") But middle school English teachers and librarians, who see the parallels to Greek mythology, might be more forgiving. Anything to get the kids interested in the classics.
It's an easy film to pick apart, but the result is positive — especially if you're a child or sitting next to one. There are plenty of bad films to get riled up about in the summer. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters isn't one of them. This is harmless tween-centric fun.
'Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters'
PG for fantasy action violence, some scary images and mild language. 20th Century Fox. 1:44. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Woodhill 2D only: Winchester