Monster Trucks (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Chris Wedge
Written by: Derek Connolly
Starring: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Holt McCallany & Thomas Lennon
Music: Dave Sardy
Release Date: December 26th 2016
In recent years we’ve seen a large shift in the development of live-action kids entertainment. In the 1990s and early 2000s you were practically tripping over films like ‘Mrs. Doubtfire‘, ‘Home Alone‘, ‘Free Willy‘, ‘Small Soldiers‘, ‘Spy Kids‘ and more. It used to be one of Hollywood’s most profitable genres, but in the early 2000s we saw two massive shifts take place. The first was the rise of 3-D animation which caused companies like Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks and more to make content for kids and their parents which wound up dominating the box-office and also Hollywood utilising the PG-13 and 12A ratings to push more mature content onto younger audiences. If they’re accompanied by a parents, kids can technically go and watch ‘The Dark Knight‘, ‘Captain America: Civil War‘ and more.
It’s not often you find live-action kids films nowadays and if you do there’s usually a CGI character at the focus of it, like ‘Scooby-Doo‘, ‘Paddington‘, ‘Alvin & The Chipmunks‘ and ‘The Smurfs‘. One company producing films of this ilk is Nickelodeon who were behind ‘Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge out of Water‘ and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ as well as its sequel and this is the studio behind ‘Monster Trucks‘; an original film aimed squarely at 10-year old boys. But maybe there’s a reason studios don’t tend to put much money behind live-action kids films anymore with ‘Monster Trucks‘ having a $125M price-tag before marketing and distribution costs with Paramount Pictures expected to lose $115M on the enterprise. But does ‘Monster Trucks‘ deserve to crash and burn with audiences or is there more under the hood then you’d expect?
Tripp Coley (Till) is just your average everyday 25-year old high school student who is hoping to escape his backwater town in a truck that he’s been assembling with scrap metal. But one day, an accident at a nearby oil-drilling site releases a trio of tentacled alien-creatures from under the earth’s surface with the company Terravex trapping two of them and the third finding its way to Tripp and taking a liking to his truck. Tripp befriends the creature, calling him “Creech”, and teams up with fellow student Meredith (Levy) and Terravex scientist Jim (Lennon) to save the other creatures and get them back home and away from Terravex.
It’s important to emphasise right off the bat that ‘Monster Trucks‘ ain’t winning any awards in practically any department. It has simplistic black-and-white morals which extend to “Corporations=Bad. Environment=Good” despite the film revolving around gas-guzzling Monster Trucks. It’s a dumb premise but it’s worth getting across that ‘Monster Trucks‘ is not for the kid inside you, it’s for the kid who may be sitting right next to you in the theatre. ‘Monster Trucks‘ is a movie that is squarely aimed at 10-year old boys and when you consider it on THOSE terms the film is actually pretty darn solid.
In an opening that feels inspired by ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘ we have an effective, if trite build-up to the arrival of “Creech” into Tripp’s life and one of the strongest elements of the movie is Creech himself. He seems like a big kid who is just having a fun time and while visually he looks like a grey blob with a goofy smile, there are some fun details to his design that make him feel unique, namely the way his mouth forms when he roars and the suckers on his tentacles that are able to generate momentum in objects simply by holding them. It’s through this latter approach that allows Creech to rest inside the hood of a car (with the engine removed, of course), grip the joints and make them rotate to move the car forward. The film actually goes to great lengths to show how Tripp is able to control Creech from the driver’s seat and how he can control the Monster Truck while still allowing Creech to have agency. It’s surprisingly creative.
The story actually takes a nice turn towards the end to make the stakes of the movie more personal for Creech, but the way the film tries to develop Tripp as a character falls pretty flat. I wasn’t expecting ‘Citizen Kane‘ levels of character development for Tripp but what we get in ‘Monster Trucks‘ was really lacklustre. Tripp wants to leave his town and his family, but his relationship to his mother and father are practically non-existent on-screen. His mother only has a couple of lines of dialogue and once she’s introduced near the beginning she doesn’t seem to exist in this world anymore and while the film goes out of its way to introduce Tripp’s dad into the narrative he contributes nothing and Tripp’s character doesn’t change or evolve based on his inclusion, making you wonder why they even bothered.
It also doesn’t really matter that Tripp goes to high school because aside from Tripp going to school one day to see a crowd gathering around a car that has had its gas-tank broken into (Creech and his species eat/drink Oil) it doesn’t factor into the story or his character. It feels like the creative team wanted to add as much as possible to Tripp’s social circle but didn’t bother to imbue anything of note behind it, making it feel like a lot of fluff which shouldn’t exist in a movie about monsters and/or trucks.
Thankfully, aside from the aforementioned relationships with family and school, Tripp’s character is likeable enough and Lucas Till does a good job carrying the movie. But it shouldn’t be understated how well Jane Levy does as Tripp’s love-interest/tutor Meredith. Yes, her character absolutely falls into the cliche of “Nerdy girl turns out to actually be hot and loves racing cars” but Jane Levy still manages to hold the character with a strong presense and it’s nice after her breakout roles in ‘The Evil Dead‘ and ‘Don’t Breathe‘ that she’s got a mainstream role that DOESN’T require her to be subject to terrible, messy torture.
As for the supporting cast, Danny Glover is fun as the wheelchair-bound owner of the junkyard Tripp works at, Thomas Lennon manages to get a few laughs out of this bog-standard scientist role and Rob Lowe is clearly having a ball as an over-the-top villain. Having watched ‘Monster Trucks‘ while I was halfway through a “Parks & Recreations” binge, it was odd seeing him play a villain but he’s not phoning in this silly performance. Everyone seems to know that they’re in a Nickelodeon kids film and all do what’s required of them. Though that mentality doesn’t excuse every flaw, for example Tripp and Meredith sneak into a highly secure corporate building by just slipping in through a side door. How…how did they do that?
But seeing ‘Monster Trucks‘ through that lens is the best way to view it; as a film for 10 year olds and to the film’s credit it has a lot of enjoyable, hyperactive set-pieces. There’s an fun sequence where Tripp feeds Creech at a Petrol Station but due to the added chemicals found in car fuel it gives Creech the equivalent of a sugar-high. The movie gets a lot of mileage (pun intended) out of having a tentacled creature inside of vehicles by making them climb buildings, perform large jumps and when a tyre falls off the vehicle Creech can just grab it in mid-air and re-attach it. There’s not much in ‘Monster Trucks‘ that goes above-and-beyond but there’s great practical stunt-work (actual cars were used for a lot of the stunts) the action set-pieces are a lot of fun.
As for the rest of the production, it may have been dumb to give this movie a $125M budget but credit where credit it due, the money is up on screen. The effects are solid, there’s some solid location-work, there’s a surprisingly large scope to the whole thing and it does feel like a polished blockbuster. Dave Sardy’s score may sound a bit generic, but with it gets the job done. I mentioned earlier on that this film won’t be winning any awards…apart from one; ‘Monster Trucks‘ has, without question, the best use of the wilhelm scream in 2016.
‘Monster Trucks‘ biggest lasting legacy will be the 2-hour contact-high it’ll give 10 year old boys after watching it and maybe, for a film like this, that’s enough. It’s earnest, has decent performances, a fun/goofy premise and it has the talent to get across that fun/goofy premise through strong VFX works mixed with great stunts and practical effects. Lucas Till and Jane Levy do a good job carrying the film and while there’s a lot of plot-holes and its attempts at character-growth are shoddily done, it manages to succeed at being a fun film for kids. ‘Monster Trucks‘ knows its audiences, caters to that audiences and succeeds on its own merits.
I give ‘Monster Trucks‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 25th Feb 17