That rare sequel that is far superior to the underwhelming start of the franchise, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters has a snappy pace, appealing performers, and a refreshing lack of exposition that help make it a solid family-friendly fantasy adventure.
Logan Lerman returns in the title role of Percy Jackson, a demigod whose mother was human and whose father was Poseidon. After the special security that protects his beloved Camp Half-Blood is breached, leaving all of the demigods exposed to attack, Percy sets off with his trusted mates -- a satyr named Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) and fellow half-blood Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) -- in order to recover the Golden Fleece, which is guarded by a fearsome Cyclops. Joining Percy on this adventure is a half-brother he never knew he had: Tyson (a winningly shaggy Douglas Smith), who is himself a Cyclops, albeit a much more mild-mannered version of the usually aggressive race. Standing in their way is Percy's old nemesis Luke (Jake Abel), the half-blood son of Hermes (Nathan Fillion) who harbors a huge grudge against his father and has developed a plan to exact revenge for being ignored by him.
Thor Freudenthal -- who made the very appealing family film Hotel for Dogs -- takes over directing duties from Chris Columbus for Sea of Monsters, and that change makes a big difference. He has a light touch, and though the effects may be clunkier than what we're used to seeing (and the 3D doesn't help when it comes to the numerous hand-to-hand fights), that deficiency is more than made up for by the appealing leads and a pair of first-rate supporting turns.
Some character actors are like bacon -- they make everything they're in just that much better. Sea of Monsters has two big strips of cinematic bacon in Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion. Tucci plays Mr. D (short for Dionysus), one of the bigwigs at Camp Half-Blood, and he gives his lines a playful smirk that befits the god of wine and lightens the tone of the movie without ever making fun of it. Fillion gets a crucial scene in the middle of the film, and he too understands exactly how broadly he can play Hermes for laughs without once sacrificing his commitment to the character and the story's more emotional touches -- plus he works in a winking reference to Firefly.
The picture admirably refuses to slow down to let newcomers play catch-up with the characters or the plot, but it's so solidly weaved together that not having the backstory doesn't matter. We're thrust right into where Percy is in the present day, and the filmmakers trust the audience to figure it out -- they actually respect the Harry Potter audience that the movie is obviously courting.
At the end, when it seems likely that someone will perish, there's an affecting grace to the young actors, who sell a scene that you've watched hundreds of times before. Considering that the premise of this entire series is about finding new ways to make Greek mythology appealing for modern youngsters, that's about the highest compliment that can be paid. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters may not be original, but in this case it's better to be good than novel.