The first Percy Jackson movie was pretty much a straight-up copy of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, in which a hero finds out he's chosen and goes on a series of tests. And now the new outing basically does the same thing all over again, except slower and with less alacrity. Call it the monomyth with mononucleosis.
The first Percy Jackson film seemed to want to launch a new Harry Potter series. They even got Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potters, to direct. There was a pretty big budget, plus actors like Pierce Brosnan and Sean Bean in the mix. And... it barely made enough money to justify a cheaper, somewhat half-assed sequel, which tries in vain to get you to care about Percy again.
This time around, it's directed by Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), and everything feels less ambitious. The plot kind of goes through the motions, and there are no real surprises. The whole thing feels kind of exhausted and timid.
The sad thing is, the first Percy Jackson wasn't a great film, but it was pretty fun. Every time you started to get bored, they would whip out Uma Thurman in a Medusa costume, a "Lotos-eaters" rave, or some other crazy Greek mytho-kitsch. The first Percy felt like warmed over "heroes journey" fluff, but it was goofy enough and fast-moving enough that you didn't really mind. It was totally generic yet fun — and if it had come out in 2001 instead of 2010, that could have been enough.
The new Percy movie starts out already at a disadvantage, although arguably it's in a similar situation to the spirited G.I. Joe: Retaliation. A cheaper sequel to a movie that nobody really loved. (Although I think people probably liked the first Percy a bit more than the first G.I. Joe.) But where Retaliation just goes all-out with the zany fun, Percy 2 just plays it safe, and serves up warmed-over comfort food.
And here's the crux of the matter: this movie doesn't make the case that there's anything new or fun to be said or done with Percy Jackson. If anything, it makes the opposite argument.
Minor spoilers ahead...
So in this film, like in some other recent sequels, it feels like we're back to square one. In the first movie, Percy saved Olympus and proved himself as a hero. Right? But in this film, nobody takes him seriously as a good guy, and he feels like he has to prove himself all over again, by going on another quest. That's basically the whole plot: Percy goes on another quest, to prove what he already proved in the first movie. That's become kind of a second-movie trope lately, the "You didn't prove yourself enough the first time" thing — and it's kind of bleh.
It's bad enough that so many movies try to give us a cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers "underdog lonely dude turns out to be the most special savior but still has to jump through questy hoops" story for their first outing. But when the second movie tries to reuse that formula all over again, by pretending that nobody believes the hero proved anything the first time, that's just sad. Seriously, there's some value in showing what happens after you've passed the tests and become a hero.
It's also a remake of Wrath of the Titans. Yay?
This time, Percy's questing for the Golden Fleece, and there's a prophecy about the possible downfall of Olympus. To the extent that there's much of a plot, it's similar to the plots of Wrath of the Titans and The Immortals: Someone wants to raise Kronos the Titan so he can destroy everything, blah blah blah.
And yes, I know these movies are based on Rick Riordan's book series — but by all accounts, they jettison most of what's interesting about the source material.
Also, the first movie had a tough badass chick who didn't take Percy seriously, Annabeth. Now she's Percy's bland sidekick, and there's a new tough badass chick who doesn't take Percy seriously, until she too realizes he's awesome. (Clarisse, played by Leven Rambin from Sarah Connor Chronicles.) Percy is also joined by his goofy Cyclops half-brother.
The film has a lot of comic set pieces that never quite reach any great payoff, like a taxi driven by the three fates who only have one eyeball between them — hilarity should ensue, but it never quite does. Ditto for the obligatory "swallowed by a sea monster and stuck in its belly" sequence.
Whedonites will appreciate a couple of the supporting roles this time around, though — Anthony Head replaces Pierce Brosnan as the centaur mentor, and he is playing Giles, with eyeliner and a horse body. I've seen Head in a lot of roles since Buffy, and this is the closest he's come to just doing Giles. Meanwhile, Nathan Fillion plays Hermes, and packs more fun and good humor into one or two scenes than pretty much the rest of the movie put together.
Prejudice. Wrote a movie 'bout it. Wanna see it?
To the extent that this movie is about anything at all other than "cheap CG and terrible 3D postconversion," it's vaguely about prejudice, I guess. Percy's Cyclops half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith) just wants to be mellow, and hang out in the woods.
But Annabeth hates Tyson because Cyclopses killed her friend when she was a kid, and she thinks all Cyclopses are evil. Even friendly outdoorsy Cyclopses. So over the course of the movie, she has to learn that you can't judge someone by his or her single eye.
There's nothing terribly wrong with any of this — this is a completely inoffensive movie with no major flaws. But the main adjective that comes to mind about Percy Jackson is "bland." If the goal of a sophomore outing is to show that a particular story still has lots of potential to grow, then this film is especially sad, since instead it shows that Percy deserves to be forgotten. On the big screen, anyway.