Film Review: Monster Trucks

Though generic in the extreme, 'Monster Trucks' still boasts a charming throwback feel.
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What if there was a monster truck…that had an actual monster in it? It should come as no surprise that the premise for Paramount’s Monster Trucks, the live-action bow of Ice Age helmer Chris Wedge, came directly from the mind of a four-year-old. The four-year-old son of former Paramount exec Adam Goodwin, to be specific.

What’s more of a surprise is this: Monster Trucks isn’t terrible. It’s actually kind of fun. Yeah, I know.

Don’t get me wrong: Monster Trucks is not a great movie. Screenwriter Derek Connolly took Goodwin Jr.’s kernel of a story and proceeded to do jack-all with it, padding out a 104-minute runtime with the most predictable characters and slightest story imaginable. At the center of events is high-school bad boy Tripp—Lucas Till, and if you’re wondering how the movie attempts to pass the 27-year-old actor off as a teen, the answer is “they don’t”—who while putting in hours at the junkyard one day discovers a giant blobfish-with-tentacles spat up from its underground habitat due to the actions of an unscrupulous oil exec (Rob Lowe, sporting a Southern accent that fades in and out despite the fact that the movie takes place in North Dakota). Tripp bonds with the monster, whom he subsequently nicknames Creech, short for “Creature.” Creech in turn takes a liking to Tripp’s junky, work-in-progress pickup; crawling inside it and acting as a sort of biological engine helps this normally water-bound animal get around easier.

From there, things unfold pretty much as expected. Tripp wants to help Creech get home; Lowe’s character wants to kill Creech, his monster parents, and all their monster buddies so he can keep drilling for oil. There’s the well-meaning if stodgy authority figure (Barry Pepper) who doesn’t believe Tripp at first, but eventually comes around. There’s The Girl (Jane Levy), in this case a sweet, environmentalist goody-goody who serves the dual roles of providing exposition and pining after a bemulleted Tripp. There’s the comic-relief henchman (Thomas Lennon) who eventually has a change of heart and the scary henchman (Holt McCallany) who doesn’t. The only real surprising thing about Monster Trucks is how much vehicular carnage (sorry) there is; though the action scenes are all solidly PG, watching this movie you just know Tripp and Creech left at least a few off-screen dead bodies in their wake.

If its slavish adherence to formula keeps Monster Trucks from being exceptionally good, it also keeps it from being exceptionally bad. Simply put, it’s…fine. If adults shouldn’t rush out to see Monster Trucks—it’s not a Jungle Book or Toy Story 3—neither should they quake at the prospect of accompanying their single-digit offspring to the theatre. Levy and Lennon are particular standouts, elevating their by-the-book material. And the lackadaisical storytelling has as an unintentional if welcome side effect in the fact that Monster Trucks lacks the obnoxiously frenetic quality that plagues many lower-tier (often animated) children’s releases.

On top of that, the visual effects and action scenes are surprisingly solid. That’s good and bad. It’s good for the movie itself, which is elevated above the direct-to-VOD tier to which films with such rote character and story work would normally be consigned. It’s bad because it’s the number-one indicator of Monster Trucks’ reported $125 million budget. $125 million. Look, you can make a cheesy kids' movie about monster trucks with actual monsters in them, but you should spend $60 million on it, max. I don’t claim to have any special insight into film-industry financials, but I’ll hazard a guess that, barring a home-video miracle, there’s no way Paramount’s going to come close to making their money back. (They apparently thought so, too, electing to take a $115 million write-off on the film all the way back in September.) People just plain don’t make—or see—this type of movie anymore, the goofy, live-action children’s entertainment genre having been absorbed for the most part by animation on one side and slick, action-heavy, four-quadrant superhero spectacles on the other. Monster Trucks feels like something a six-year-old would have devoured on VHS in 1993. That’s a good thing. If Monster Trucks represents a gross miscalculation on the part of Paramount, it’s still an oddly charming one.