Monster Trucks is pure, child-first cinema that’s energetically staged to wow younger audiences (and entertain older chaperones). Didn’t see that coming, did ya? We’re talking about a film that Viacom publicly took a $115 million write-down for and buried away with little-to-no hype. As a critic, these scenarios typically spell a 15-car-pile-up kind of disaster – yet Monster Trucks is no such dumpster fire.
As legend tells, former Paramount film president Adam Goodwin fell in love with an idea co-spawned by his four-year-old son. From there, Ice Age/Robots director Chris Wedge was offered his first feature outside animation, with screenplay duties going to Safety Not Guaranteed/Jurassic World writer Derek Connolly (story by Glenn Berger/Jonathan Aibel/Matthew Robinson). No joke. All these people were tasked with making a child’s cinematic dreams come true, and that’s exactly what the film feels like – a wide-eyed, enthusiastic slice of fun-filled kiddie entertainment. Kid invented, kid approved.
Lucas Till stars as Tripp, a middle America high schooler who happens to be a gifted grease monkey. He’s a bit of a loner, choosing to spend all his free time in Mr. Weathers’ junkyard (a wheelchair bound Weathers played by Danny Glover). Tripp dreams of escaping the small-town life he’s been born into, but a broken-down truck frame won’t get him anywhere.
Lucky for Tripp, drilling company Terravex accidentally unleashes subterranean creatures while attempting to tap into an untouched oil reserve – wait, “lucky?” Yup! Three monsters are unearthed, the youngest of which essentially becomes the engine for Tripp’s teal rust bucket. Together, Tripp and his new blobby friend – “Creech” (short for Creechtholomew I assume) – form an unlikely friendship while fighting corporate goons and suffocated dreams. Should be an easy journey, except for Terravex having the entire town on their payroll…
As expected, Tripp finds more than a friend in Creech upon their bewildered introduction. The good-natured, oil-drinking beast helps Tripp relate to a monster who’s searching for his own kind of freedom, since Terravex CEO Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe) disrupted a long-buried ecosystem in his unethical search for liquid gold. The two new buddies depend on one another, and – all credit going to Till – the chemistry between boy and slimy land octopus is wholesome.
Creech is a big puppy dog with tentacles, laughing and grinning his way through Till’s own bouts of self-reflection. Even crammed inside Tripp’s modded Dodge clunker, Creech displays childlike charms too innocent to disregard (very Pete’s Dragon-like). Try not to smile as Creech chuckles while Tripp fumbles social interactions with love-interest Meredith (we’ll get to Jane Levy’s genius later), or whenever Tripp opens two fitted shutter doors that reveal Creech’s excited, happy face (so he can see while “driving”). Fish-out-of water feelings paired with the unlikeliest forms of compassion – bet you didn’t see that coming in Monster Trucks.
What other surprises does Wedge’s engine-revving adventure hold? Strong, watchable acting. All across the board.
It all starts with a lean, mature-looking Till who makes his “high school” classmates look like preschoolers. All jokes aside, the actor eats up the screen as a wunderkind mechanic and social misfit. Jane Levy is even better as a Nat-Geo loving biology nerd, so confident in her quirky charisma and even better when misinterpreting Tripp’s words with schoolyard-crush hope.
Elsewhere, Rob Lowe is a non-factor – even with his totally-not-necessary southern accent – but Holt McCallany plays gun-for-hire as well as always (seriously, what else does he do?) and Thomas Lennon does what Thomas Lennon does best – be Thomas Lennon. We will never have another actor like him, so skilled at sneaking a quick laugh into otherwise important situations (“Oh, this door opens…” gag had me howling). And then we come to Barry Pepper, whose love for his cop car might be a cute gimmick, but Pepper legitimately delivers a solid second-father arc with so much reserved heart. I guess that makes up for Amy Ryan’s thirty seconds on camera (which probably took 30 minutes of filming to put together).
This all leads us to Wedge’s lax reign on consequence and continuity, which accounts for some head-scratching moments. Ryan plays Till’s mother, who we see leave for work in the film’s opening scene, never to return. Apparently her shift doesn’t end until the movie’s final montage where she’s shown again? Till’s mommy figure is never alerted of her son’s destructive joyride through town, where Tripp and Meredith cause numerous highway accidents and destroy upwards of eight product cars sitting on a dealership’s parking lot. Straight-up vehicle-on-vehicle carslaughter without a single repercussion. Great lesson for the little ones!
This becomes the established tone of Monster Trucks – zero consequences are dropped on Tripp even though he’s the only one for miles who owns a brightly-painted Frankenstein truck BEING POWERED BY A MONSTER. Just like how the film glosses over the NUMEROUS people who are brutally murdered while Tripp tries to save Creech’s home. People are covered in steaming poison, and sixteen-wheeler cabs are crushed (Wilhelm Scream and all) as Tripp and our heroes fist-pump with victorious gallantry.
Maybe they were wearing seat belts and have NASCAR-grade roll cages installed in every vehicle? Or maybe they died horrendous deaths that are simply looked away from (this is what happens). I appreciate Wedge’s ability to treat Monster Trucks as nothing but joyride-quality fun, but there are some glaring omissions in the plot material that just cannot be sped past.
That said, Wedge does indeed achieve beyond what’s expected. Chase sequences are more than Pimp My Ride inspired Dodge product placement, exploring a title-pun concept that somehow evolves past inherent nearsightedness. As Tripp explains, Creech’s tentacles hide glowing cilia that can rotate objects with tremendous force. Wrap them around axles and other car parts, and things start spinning. I’ll buy it! Go ahead, pile on the imaginative ridiculousness as Creech car climbs on top of buildings, leaps through the air and pulls tricks that’d make Fast And Furious drivers blush.
Lennon lands some dynamite zingers, Levy sheds her Don’t Breathe/Evil Dead badassery for winning good-girl doe eyes and everyone has fun pretending to drive cars – seriously, there are numerous scenes where characters sit behind steering wheels and pretend to drive, and somehow, each works. You will not be surprised by the mentality of this slimy playground, only by how much you’re actually enjoying everything.
It’s only January, but I’m declaring Monster Trucks my biggest surprise of 2017. Beyond being competently constructed and wildly creative, attention to detail makes for a silly – yet sincere – ode to the nostalgic freedom of childhood. All those performances I’ve listed above are just a start. What about Creech’s digital representation, you ask? Animators bring him and his species alive with well-rendered designs, only fumbling a few minor spurts of obvious CGI blemishes. Sure, ignored plotholes make for a Swiss-cheese story, but the way that Chris Wedge’s team keeps firing on all cylinders is admirable (characters merely accept weirdness and forgo exposition). This is shameless family fun that even sneaks pro-environment messages and themes of finding friendship into unlikely places – plus monster selfies!
What an unapologetic, slapstick ride slathered in gooey, wheel-turning tomfoolery, and what a randomly good start to 2017.
Monster Trucks is a weird, wacky ride that's made better by its sense of good-natured, juvenile fun (for the most part).