With the young wizards of "Harry Potter" fading from memory, the demigod teenagers of "Percy Jackson" are starting to seem like the next best thing.

The first film, 2010's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," based on Rick Riordan's young-adult novel, seemed way too Rowlingesque, a fantasy-adventure set in a magical boarding school and directed by "Potter" veteran Chris Columbus. The follow-up, "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters," has a new director and a little more room to breathe in the movie marketplace, which helps it establish a personality of its own.

Logan Lerman returns as Percy, son of Poseidon. He's feeling restless and questless, but that won't last: When his school, Camp Half-Blood, is threatened by the rogue demigod Luke (an excellent Jake Abel), Percy must save it by finding the all-powerful Golden Fleece. With his friend Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and satyr sidekick Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), Percy will head into waters beyond even his father's control. Along for the ride is a new character, Percy's sweet-natured, Cyclopean half-brother, Tyson (Douglas Smith). The cast lacks a certain spark, but the actors seem to be settling into their roles.

The film's fantasy elements work well, thanks to some imaginative special effects. The mechanical bulls that invade Camp Half-Blood are marvelously intricate, and a rainbow-colored sea horse comes to life, thanks to a clever visual touch -- water-drops that fleck the camera. Elsewhere, though, the film cheats: Grover, supposedly goat-legged and cloven-hoofed, is never shown below the hips, except in distant long-shots.

Director Thor Freudenthal ("Diary of a Wimpy Kid") and new writer Marc Guggenheim maintain the first film's pop-culture humor: The god Hermes, played by Nathan Fillion, tells us his tie is Hermès. The corny jokes almost come with rimshots, but they help lighten the film's heavy emotional backdrop of demigod children neglected by their parents.

"Percy Jackson" may always feel like a distant second to "Harry Potter." But given the thin competition these days, it's at the head of the pack.

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PLOT Young demigod Percy embarks on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.


CAST Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson


BOTTOM LINE With "Harry Potter" gone, this franchise is starting to feel slightly less derivative. Eye-catching effects help hide the cribbing.