I have a confession to make. I took Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters on holiday with me to read it before seeing the film - but when I got there, I spent most of my time reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole instead (which is a great book, and similarly fascinating TV series). As a result, this afternoon I had the slightly peculiar experience of going to see a film while simultaneously being halfway through reading the book on which it's based. Matters were further complicated by the fact that these adaptations are relatively loose compared to, say, the Harry Potter films, and that I haven't read the first book and can remember almost nothing of the film, since I only saw it once. Apparently Luke (a villain from the first installment) met a slightly different fate in the film than he did in the book? Oh well.
One thing I do remember from the first film is that Chiron the centaur was played by 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan variety. This is no longer the case - Chiron now appears in the form of Rupert Giles, which perhaps explains his reluctance to give Percy access to a prophecy involving Percy's own potential untimely demise (Buffy reacted really badly when he told her the same thing). Dionysus, meanwhile, has morphed into Stanley Tucci, playing a version of the book's Mr D, though a much softer, more overtly comic Mr D than his rather sinister book counterpart. He is responsible for one of the jokes that made me laugh out loud during the film. The other, a nerdy fandom-based shout-out appreciated by absolutely no one else in the cinema audience except me, came courtesy of Nathan Fillion, now playing Hermes (sadly the YouTube clip of his scene edits out said geeky in-joke, but I'm sure it'll turn up on Pinterest at some point).
One major new character in this film is a Cyclops, or a small version of one (the bigger version turns up later). Aside from the fact no-one could pronounce the plural (it's Cyclop-EEZE, not Cyclopses) Tyson is a fun addition; a bit brighter than his book counterpart, but still endearingly prone to dropping important MacGuffins off the side of boats and so on. We are also introduced to the Delphic Oracle, a skeletal figure with long grey hair and glowing eyes, looking like a horror-movie mummy (as, I gather from the first half of Book 2, she is described in the books). I like the idea of the oracle as a mummy. The Sibyl at Cumae - a different, Roman oracle - was sometimes said to have shriveled with age to the point that she was put in a jar (possibly the inspiration for that awful Gollum-Doctor in Doctor Who's 'Last of the Timelords'), so the idea of the Delphic Oracle as a skeletal, mummy-like creature works rather well.
Some of the elements of this film are very nicely visualized. Charybdis, the monster that creates a whirlpool and sucks ships down into it, appears first as menacing shark-like fins, and her insides are brightly coloured and pulsating. (The idea of our heroes being trapped in the creature's stomach is a really interesting combination of an ancient idea going back at least to Lucian's True Story with improved modern knowledge of the digestive system). The Golden Fleece itself looks, not like a raggy, just-off-the-sheep coat, as in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, but a rather nicely designed rug, the sort of sheep fleece you might buy in a shop (though its magical healing properties are presumably inspired by the older film, as I'm not aware of any ancient texts that ascribe healing properties to the Fleece - the point of questing for it was that it was supposedly impossible to get hold of, rather than any use it might be. The sheep could fly before it was sacrificed - dead, it's just a trophy).
When the film is required to produce an animated sequence telling the story of the Titans, it elects for a similar approach to Disney' Hercules, while trying (probably unsuccessfully) to prevent audiences from drifting off into a mental rendition of 'The Gospel Truth.' Like Hercules, Percy Jackson uses Christian imagery to emphasize the element of religious practice in the source material, in this case, animating figures from a stained-glass window that sits behind the Oracle. It works quite well, though it can't erase the ghost of the superior Disney film. It also has to be said that sadly, not all the design elements are so original - when Kronos makes an appearance, he is played by the Balrog. As he was in Wrath of the Titans. Boring.
Maybe it's just because I've been reading the book this week, in which the kids are 12, but I found myself constantly distracted by the ages of the actors in this film. The principals are, roughly, 21, 26, 29, 23, 27 and 25. In most cases, this is partly down to the long gap between films, the first one having come out three years ago in 2010, but those are still some pretty big age gaps between character and actor. Normally I don't let this sort of thing bother me, but there was something about this film - perhaps the frequent references to Percy possibly dying before the age of 20, perhaps the flashback in the opening sequence that featured actual children, perhaps just how adult Luke looked while plotting and scheming - that meant this persistently annoyed me, good as all the actors are. All the characters have been aged up anyway, of course, with the book's prophecy referring to Percy dying aged 16, not 20, and everyone in the book clearly much younger, but for some reason I couldn't suspend my disbelief on this the way I usually can (it's never bothered me in The Hunger Games, for example). Perhaps it's just a sign that the film wasn't entirely holding my attention.
Like many modern films, this film emphasizes the idea that we make our own choices and control our own destinies, suggesting that fighting Fate is a good idea (though all elements of prophecies given are, so far, fulfilled or yet to happen). The Greeks would not be on board with this notion - a substantial proportion of Greek mythology concerns the grim inevitability of Fate. Otherwise, it's fun spotting the bits and pieces of Greek myth scattered about the place, though I confess I'm somewhat mystified as to why the Fates want to drive a taxi, or Circe wanted to build an amusement park. I mean, turn men into pigs and/or her sex slaves, yes. But why an amusement park?
The film has a PG rating, though I wouldn't take sensitive younger children to it, as the opening sequence features the death of a fairly young character, who is then incorporated into the roots of a tree, from which she stares up at the sky, creepily. But then, maybe I'm over-reacting because I've always been freaked out by Cyclopes - the one eye gives me the shivers. This is literally the reason I haven't watched all that much Futurama. I am prejudiced against Cyclopes. Older or less sensitive children will have fun, though they might be a bit confused in places! Personally, I was reasonably well entertained, and there's a pleasantly light and friendly tone to the film with plenty of humour throughout, but it remains to be seen whether this is enough to see Percy's story through to its prophesied end before the cast turn 40.
Read my review of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief