Tuesday, September 10, 2013

In Theatres: Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters is like if some low budget hack job from the days of Bruno Mattei were given $90 million and told to make Harry Potter 2.5. Virtually nothing about the film is remotely original, nor does it take any steps to hide that fact, the fact that the Percy Jackson series is itself a series of adaptations of the books with the same name notwithstanding. The result is less a film than a formula for instant film success.

The film begins telling the story of three teens who – stop me if you've heard this before – travel to a secret magical school, the only place where they can be truly safe and learn to use the powers they were born with. They are part of a hidden, magical world which exists alongside our own but is completely invisible unless you know the right way to look. While there, Percy finds out that he is the chosen one, who is responsible for facing an evil half-blood and either saving or dooming the world. From there the trio of heroes call on a form of teleportation that is a cross between the supernatural and the mundane, driven by an eccentric and featuring a living prop. We've just managed to adopt the Harry/Hermione/Ron team and the naming scheme from The Philosopher’s Stone (and all of its sequels), the prophecy from Order of the Phoenix, and the Night Bus from Prisoner of Azkaban. Later in the film, Harry Potter fans will discover that Percy has found his own Neville Longbottom. Besides the multitude of Harry Potter references, the prophecies in this film are done in the same style as Disney's Hercules, and I actually found myself saying out loud at one monster “In its belly you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.” Seeing as how this is based on a book series about introducing Greek mythology to new children, it might be overkill for me to mention that the only reason I saw this film was that it was a modern remake of Jason and the Argonauts...except only the MacGuffin itself was actually that.

Despite being a piecemeal film cobbled together from bits of other stories, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters does more right than I could have possibly guessed. Particularly of note is the sense of scale. Rather than starting small and progressing to physically larger spells the way the Harry Potter series does, the capabilities of these demi-gods are all of a much larger scale. Their abilities range from summoning war-zombies from the Civil War and powerful aquatic beasts to summoning powerful waves to potentially capsize a yacht. Watching Percy Jackson working to control massive waves of water has a mythic feel that I would associate with what a superhero movie should be like – and one that most superhero movies doesn't have. The fact that this exists specifically to emulate Greek mythology only makes it better – it says that this project knew what it wanted, despite not having any original ideas of its own.

That said, I'd be remiss if I left you thinking this film was perfect. The “three heroes”trope is stuck to so hard that the film switches out the third wheel not once, not twice, but three times. It gets to the point that whenever a new adventurer joins the party, you can assume that something is going to to happen to somebody else in the group. For all that the character group hearkens back to the trio that made Harry Potter so accessible, Percy Jackson cut out one of the key elements of that formula: Hermione. Yes, there's a girl, but she's not so much a nerd as...a girl. In and of itself, including a girl who knows how to use a javelin and lends support to the main character is not a particularly noteworthy decision. Annabeth isn't a particularly good character any more than she is a particularly bad character. This goes for almost everybody in the film – Percy, Clarisse, Tyson – but doubly here, as she is in some ways taking the place of the character who was the most ground-breaking in Harry Potter: the knowledge-obsessed nerd who learned to tone it down while learning of magic and friendship. This isn't to say that the exact same trope should be copied from franchise to franchise, but given the choice between a complex, flawed, driven, intelligent character and a character with no particular interesting qualities other than a bias that she has a reason for and learns to see past at the end, I'd go with a Hermione clone. It worked for My Little Pony, didn't it?

I said that “most” of the characters fall into this bland, semi-interesting category. The one exception to this is Grover. I could not stand this character. What is it with fictional universes that need to combine all of the minorities into as few characters as possible so everybody else can be your standard white male? I was able to easily look past the “white, female and ginger” grouping in Harry Potter, if partially because I had never heard the word “ginger” used in any way to describe a red-headed individual prior to reading the Harry Potter books, but that tendency has stepped up to extreme in modern days. Gay superheroes are often minorities or ethnic in some way (Spider-man, Bunker), and while I don't believe most writers are intentionally writing them to say that “gay people don't look like us”, it still embodies a disturbing trend to keep as many characters “default” (straight white male) as possible while still including an acceptable amount of tokens. In Percy Jackson, the token tends to shift from black satyr, to Cyclops, to militaristic aggressive woman...let's not read to much into that last one and treat it like the lazy, accidental symbolism it is, shall we? Rather, let's look at the cowardly half-black man, half-goat comic relief, and see where the real problem lies: lazy stereotypes substituting for writing. Was Grover this bad in novel form? I'd like to give Rick Riordan more credit for this, but that is only because of my clinging to my last hopes that a shred of human decency exists in the world than actually knowing anything about what the novels are like.

Another comment that I'm not sure whether to consider a flaw or not is the fact that this film is clearly self-aware. Anthony Head plays Rupert Giles, except as a centaur. Nathan Fillion plays a half-serious, half-comic relief character, who gives a monologue about how “the best show ever” was canceled. I enjoyed these things, but I had to groan at the same time.

With all of these elements, I would be hard-pressed to call Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters a good film, but I can certainly call it an enjoyable one. It has an epic scale and borrows a lot of the ideas that made Harry Potter fun. The characters show some growth, which warms you up to them, and the writers manage to restrain themselves from making the competitive rival into a complete unbearable bitch a la the anime version of Gary Oak. It's fun to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and point out things that came from other movies, but probably not worth shelling out $12 for a ticket and $15 for popcorn and soda.


Maurice Mitchell said...

Based on your opening sentence I'm surprised that you recommend it William. I may give it a watch on Redbox.

William Silvia said...

That opening line is coming from someone who's watched "Cozzilla" 3 times this summer.