Returning from sleep-away camp, my teenage daughter, who'd hitherto declared reading a foreign pursuit, announced that she was now a "bookie." Ruthlessly suppressing my inner jig, I nodded casually and asked how this literary epiphany had come about. A cabin full of reader-girls, it seemed, had turned her on to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. And so it came to pass that, over the next few weeks, my child holed up at the library and indulged a burgeoning obsession with Greek mythology.
So it was in a spirit of knee-bending gratitude that I took the teen to a screening of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, the second (and, to judge by its open ending, far from the last) episode in a young demigod's quest to rise to all manner of occasions.
I haven't read Riordan's well-regarded novels, and anyway these days most movie fantasies for kids — stacked with souped-up special effects in place of character and story — aren't really my bag. Nor had I seen Chris Columbus' Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which blew away the box office but won middling reviews.
So I'm happy to report that Percy Jackson Part Deux is a fetching mix of whizz-bang CGI and full-blooded classical storytelling. Deftly directed by the gloriously named Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters brings back Logan Lerman, who charmed our family to bits as a lovelorn sensitive soul in last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here, Lerman plays the titular son of Poseidon, a busy guardian of the seas whose inattention has dropped his offspring in a heap of self-doubt, despite his successful rescue of the world in the first movie.
This time around, Percy's task is to rescue his home base, Camp Half-Blood — a homey little nature refuge that reads a bit like Hogwarts, with more in the way of horned and hoofed creatures — from fire-breathing mythical monsters. There is also a hard-bodied badass, Luke (Jake Abel), who looks like a hedge-fund manager but is in fact the son of Hermes (Nathan Fillion), a messenger with a twist that will make you roar.
Let it be said that the effects department had fun: There are satyrs, centaurs and Cyclopes both good and evil; there are friendly zombies and unfriendly bulls with animatronic scaly bits; and a wonderful abandoned amusement park crawling with alarming wildlife. The goofy bonus is Stanley Tucci as a rumpled, bearded, pedagogically suspect Dionysus, constantly on the lookout for a cheeky little merlot.
As if this weren't adversity enough, poor Percy, plagued by insecurity, must recover the Golden Fleece, an innocuous-looking blankie with magical healing powers. As road trips go, Sea of Monsters throws itself around at breakneck speed, hurtling between Washington and Florida, and through the scary waters of the Bermuda Triangle.
Marc Guggenheim's script is capable and funny, but the film's finest wit is vehicular. There's a decrepit taxicab driven by three crones with but a single eye, plus a water horse with the splendid name of Hippocampus, who carries three fledgling heroes to a luxury yacht where Luke awaits, loaded with Oedipal angst and bad intentions.
If that were all, Sea of Monsters would make a perfectly presentable boys' own adventure yarn. But the movie doesn't slight the ancient lessons of the Greek myths, which have much to offer the teenage heart searching for answers to questions like, Who am I? Why must I sweep the hearth when the world needs saving? Why do I feel like crap when I'm supposed to be a superhero? And by the way, what are girls for?
Answer: Girls like Percy's rival Clarisse (Leven Rambin), with tempers as hot as their lithe bodies, are for fighting, competing and using their brains. They're not much for romancing, and in fact the real love story in Sea of Monsters is a slow-gathering bromance between Percy and his newfound half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith). Like most teenagers, the two are hybrids who, each in his own way, feels as if he's from another planet.
"We must create our own destinies," says Percy as he prepares to surmount one challenge or another. That's nice — and very American-modern. The gods of yore, bless their fatalistic socks, are surely muttering beneath their fiery breath, "Good luck with that, honey." (Recommended)