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Rating: ★★☆☆☆

The second instalment of the Percy Jackson series, based on the hugely successful book franchise by Ricky Riordan, picks things back up in the Camp Half-Blood, where the descendants of Greek gods tackle vicious assault exercises that would surely put paid to a meek mortal.

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a bland sort of name, and a bland sort of individual, and neither returning accomplices Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) or Anabetha (Alexandra Daddario) have much to contribute in the way of colourful characterisations. So it’s a delight to see hapless Cyclops half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith) thrown into the mix, as well as needlessly belligerent camp rival Clarisse (Leven Rambin), whose consistent bullying of Percy comes across more amusing than testing. These young upstarts are flanked by older actors in Anthony Head’s Chiron, activities director and resident centaur, and fellow Whedonite Nathan Fillion as Hermes, god of messengers, a welcome gust of comic relief and, vitally, charisma. (“‘Hercules Busts Heads? It’s the greatest TV show ever made… so, of course, it was cancelled.”)

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The kids are sent across the Bermuda Triangle in search of a magical Golden Fleece that will heal the barrier between their world and that of the beings who seek their demise. Even with the subtitle Sea of Monsters, there aren’t really any nautical nasties plaguing Percy and his young friends, with the exception of the crashing waves and the Bond villain boat owned by good-kid-turned-bad Luke Castellan (Jake Abel), reprising his angst-ridden antagonist role from the first film. The only real monster encountered in these stormy seas is, strangely enough, barely glimpsed: a humongous defender of the seas, whose spine, resembling dozens of shark fins, is the only visible limb of the behemoth before our heroes slip into its stomach. Indeed, most of the computer-animated beasts are actually to be found on land, including a flame-breathing mechanical bull, a flesh-eating Cyclops, and the big baddy of them all, Kronos.

The film regards its characters as little more than enablers for the multitude of moral lessons it wishes to impart on younger viewers. It can be all too easy for the viewer to lose track of how many lessons they’re intended to take away, but the actors nevertheless remind us at every turn. Do not discriminate against somebody based on their appearance. Believe in yourself. Do not be a slave to destiny. Or, alternatively, accept your fate. Whichever works.

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Even with these agreeable sentiments floating around, there’s an unquestionably sinister stench in the air. The film seems to enjoy playing tricks on its viewers, as it takes the tension derived from drawing protagonists within a whisker’s distance of their demise, and drives it toward the logical conclusion of assumed fatalities. Across the course of the film, almost every character dies – or appears to die – and subsequently returns back to life. Some of these resurrections vary from miracles one could spot a mile off, to legitimately clever swerves, to cheap justifications. But what they all have in common is a desperate compulsion to trick the audience into emotional immersion through the easiest route possible – death – and then switch the rules at the very last minute.

Granted, the film is based on concrete source material, set midway through a multi-book franchise that daren’t sacrifice its key characters just yet (though much has been changed in the adaptation process), but the handy escapes routinely smack of convenience, and therefore the stakes decrease with each successive set-piece. These are, for better or worse, invincible archetypes of fantasy cinema, and their irrefutable destiny is to succeed with little to no battle scars.

For a kid’s fantasy film, this is probably to be expected. But even the younger ones may tire of the routine dispensing of threats – despite the loudness, and the 3D trickery that sends the waves careening into their eyeballs.

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Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is released in US and UK cinemas this Friday

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This article was first posted on August 5, 2013