When "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief" came out in 2010, it was met with angry fans and disappointed critics. Moviegoers were upset that the story veered from the bestselling novel by author Rick Riordan, and critics deemed the Christopher Columbus-directed film a "Harry Potter" knock-off.
Yet the special-effects-laden movie, which stars Logan Lerman as the eponymous Percy, a young boy who discovers he's the son of the Greek god Poseidon, went on to make $226 million worldwide for 20th Century Fox, with the majority of its grosses coming from overseas.
It was profitable enough, with a loyal enough fan base, that the studio decided to embark on a sequel, but not before it made some key changes, specifically hiring "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" director Thor Freudenthal to revisit the world of Camp Half-Blood — a director who would employ a lighter touch and a more faithful adaptation to the second book in the series, "Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters." The film opens Wednesday.
"Tonally, Thor is much different than Chris Columbus as a filmmaker," said Lerman, 21, who has gained more of a following from his starring role in the breakout 2012 indie "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." "His tone is definitely what fans of the book will want to see more. I met a lot of people and some of them were disappointed with the tone of the first one and what it was trying to be. This one is bringing it back to the humor that's in the book."
The Percy Jackson series, which started in 2005 and has sold 33 million books, is rife with teenagers in peril. It centers on a group of young half-bloods (half human/half gods) who have been abandoned by their immortal parents, forced to navigate adolescence on their own.
Yet Riordan cuts much of the danger in the story lines with a wry sense of humor and cheeky commentary. For example, his protagonist's half-blood status is the reason he is dyslexic and diagnosed with ADHD. Some sample chapter titles in the "Sea of Monsters" include "I Play Dodgeball With Cannibals" and "I Have the Worst Family Reunion Ever."
In "The Sea of Monsters," Percy and his two loyal friends, Grover Underwood the Satyr and Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena, embark on a quest to find the Golden Fleece, which will heal the ailing magical tree that protects their camp from intruders.
"The tone of the books are very modern. It knows when not to take itself so seriously," Freudenthal said. "I wanted to do that. Give it a spring in its step, so to speak, hopefully never at the cost of the emotional journey of Percy."
The PG-rated "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" bowed in February 2010, grossing $31 million its opening weekend but dropping precipitously during the weekdays with kids back in school. The studio wanted it to open ahead of "Clash of the Titans," which, though aimed at an older audience, featured many of the same Greek god characters. The film also suffered from inevitable comparisons to "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth film in the series that opened seven months earlier, also centering on a boy with magical parents who is forced to fend for himself.
Columbus, who directed the first two "Harry Potter" films and understood the similarities between the franchises, chose to age his protagonists up (Lerman was 17 when Percy bowed, compared to Daniel Radcliffe, who was 11 when first cast in the "Harry Potter" series) to minimize the comparisons.
According to his producer, Michael Barnathan, the veteran director behind such family classics as "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" was more comfortable depicting older children engaged in sword play.
"It's more difficult to put an 11-year-old on screen, swinging a sword fighting a beast," said Barnathan, who produced the sequel with Columbus. But making the characters older "caused a bit of collateral damage with the fans. It's the danger of adapting books. Always."
Still, the first "Percy," at a budget of $110 million, was a success, especially in home video and international. Said Fox 2000 President Elizabeth Gabler, "The first movie was very profitable for us, so we are not coming at this like, 'Oh, we have to do OK with this one.' "
Freudenthal, 40, has a boyish charm about him. Dressed in sneakers and jeans, the German immigrant with a degree from Cal Arts and an animation background takes his visitor through some of his favorite scenes of the movie — an action-packed taxi ride the three protagonists embark on with a trio of blind witches, and a quieter one with Nathan Fillion playing the self-involved messenger of the gods Hermes, sporting a UPS outfit and a singular form of arrogance.
"He's an embarrassment of riches," said Freudenthal, gushing over Fillion's performance like a Comic-Con bound fan boy. "Those are the reasons you do this kind of thing."
Freudenthal also brought back Dionysus, played by Stanley Tucci, for comic relief. The god of wine, who was in the first book but not in the movie, has been banished to Camp Half-Blood to dry out while taking care of teenagers, whom he despises. All his fine wine turns to water.
While Freudenthal hewed closely to the book, he couldn't look to the book's author directly for advice. Though Riordan came to set once during the original "Percy," he didn't see the first film and stayed away from the production during its second go-around.
"Rick is terrific about supporting the films," Gabler said. "But he's an industry in his own right, and he keeps it pretty separate. He's one of those authors that just focuses on the books."
The filmmakers are hoping that the three-year break between the movies will help at the box office. In that time, a new crop of readers have emerged in the 8-12 age range, and a loyal cadre of young teens who saw the first film have been eagerly waiting for the second.
That group, Barnathan said, seem to be particularly drawn to Lerman.
Plus, with the "Harry Potter" series concluded and few fantastical, kid-driven films in the marketplace, "Percy" shouldn't suffer the same comparisons as it did in 2010. Early tracking suggests that the movie, which marks one of the last family live-action films of the summer, could open to $35 million for its first five days of release.
"This summer there has really not been anything that plays to the young teenager. Not much for the 8- to 12-year-old either," Barnathan said. "It's their movie, and I'm just hoping we are in the chase."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun