Neither cynical, pandering nor ironic, this tale of demi-gods seeking the Golden Fleece feels as fun and frivolous as an old Steve Reeves movie
Ray Harryhausen recently passed away, but the kind of quasi-mythological adventure for which the animation legend created skeleton armies and horrifying harpies is alive and well in “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.”
Sure, the effects are all computer-generated now, but this franchise delivers the kind of silly, all-ages fun that’s appeared far too infrequently on the big screen since 1950s “Hercules” star Steve Reeves hung up his toga.
For this second in a series of films based on the novels by Rick Riordan, director Thor Freudenthal (“Hotel for Dogs,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) takes over the reins from Chris Columbus, but the “Percy Jackson” series still feels very post-Harry Potter, not that it isn’t entertaining on its own merits.
If these daffy epics inspire kids to pick up Edith Hamilton and read up on the mythological figures who get name-checked throughout, so much the better.
Percy (Logan Lerman), having learned in the first film that he is the half-human son of Poseidon, continues his training at Camp Half-Blood. (And just as an aside — how vexed must these sons and daughters of Olympus be to know that wizards get a cool British boarding school while they’re stuck drinking bug juice at a summer camp?)
This enclave for demi-gods comes under attack when a protective tree — actually one of Zeus’s daughters, long story — is poisoned and thus unable to maintain the barrier that repels interlopers. After a foe from the past breaks through the invisible wall with a deadly mechanical bull, it’s up to the campers to find the legendary Golden Fleece in the Sea of Monsters (known to us mortals as the Bermuda Triangle) to save the tree.
It’s not a great time for Percy to go a-wandering, alas; he’s feeling inadequate and like a “one-quest wonder” after his heroics in “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief,” and on top of that, an oracle (voiced strikingly by Shohreh Aghdashloo) has told Percy that he will either save Olympus, or destroy it.
On top of that, Percy soon learns that he’s not an only child after all; seems Poseidon also had a fling with a sea nymph, resulting in half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith, “Big Love”), who happens to be a Cyclops. With returning pals Grover (Brandon T. Jackson, “Tropic Thunder”) and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), and new rival Clarice (Leven Rambin), Percy sets out to save the day, prophecy be damned.
The movie’s rib-elbowing jokes about gods existing under our noses get tired — Nathan Fillion, for example, pops up as Hermes, running the Olympian Parcel Service from inside a UPS Store — but at least the screenplay by Marc Guggenheim (“Green Lantern”) takes the characters and their quest seriously, even if we have to endure a Disney feel-good-ism or two. (“If you don’t like your destiny,” one character tells Percy, “write a new one.”)
The cast is game, from the slumming vets (Fillion, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Head) to the appealing youngsters, led by Lerman, who won an older fan base with his rich turn in last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” He makes for an amiable hero here, able to command the screen even when he’s surrounded by visual effects galore, most of them having to do with wind, water and mystical creatures.
Guggenheim and Freudenthal keep the big set pieces coming, from a trio of terrifying underworld cab drivers (Mary Birdsong, Yvette Nicole Brown and Missi Pyle) to showdowns with sea monsters and a not-so-nice, one-eyed distant relative of Tyson’s.
In an age where even “The Smurfs 2” has to arch an eyebrow and pretend that it’s hipper than itself, there’s something refreshing about the lack of irony in the “Percy Jackson” series. They’re the ideal matinee movies for an era that doesn’t know what matinees are anymore.