Remember that 80s cartoon Monster Trucks? It was about a strange creature from underground that inhabited a kid’s truck. The monster, the kid, his girlfriend and a scientist would go on to have adventures, while G-man came after them. If this isn’t ringing a bell, it’s because I made all of that up. Not made up is this film, a live-action cartoon made for a family audience. It’s not particularly deep and it’s quite rough around the edges, but it’s also a movie we really don’t see much of these days – a live-action, PG-rated, adventure film. That doesn’t make the film’s ridiculousness inconsequential, but I also can’t say there isn’t fun to be had in this wacky concept.
Set in Small Town, USA (filmed in Vancouver), the film focuses on a strange subterranean creature who leaves his home following an accident involving an oil-drilling site. The creature eventually finds refuge in a junkyard owned by ol’ Mr. Weathers (Danny Glover, as old as ever), who works with high schooler Tripp (Lucas Till). Tripp eventually finds that the creature, whom he names Creech, has hidden in an old truck he is working on and has found a way to operate the truck, while inside of it. Naturally, wackiness ensues, which is propelled by Tripp’s attempts to keep Creech away from the evil oil company man (Rob Lowe) and his main enforcer (Holt McCallany).
Just to round out who is involved and put focus on the kind of effort that went into getting a great cast of performers and character actors, Monster Trucks also features Jane Levy, Amy Ryan, Barry Pepper, Thomas Lennon and Frank “Look at the big brain on Brett” Whaley. For a random Nickelodeon movie released in January, that’s a pretty strong cast, though I won’t pretend they are all stars in demand. Regardless of motivations however, everyone seems game to play along in a film that I honestly assumed was an animated flick by default, before seeing a trailer.
That certainly helps, as this premise only has so far to travel in live-action form. Shot with a surprising amount of sincerity and appropriately PG grittiness, director Chris Wedge (Ice Age) has his characters play their parts pretty straight, while dealing with subterranean monsters that use trucks like hermit crabs use shells. Writer Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) seems to have basically picked up the concept out of a hat and treated it with enough respect possible, so the points at which Tripp and Creech drive off mountains and over trains finds a way of genuinely delighting the viewer. Never mind the thought of reality though, as this is a movie that keeps the focus on fun first.
Thanks to some nifty special effects that allow the film to straddle the line of convincing enough, you get the cuddliest version of a tentacled underground cave monster possible and can enjoy the logic of seeing it power a truck. No, it doesn’t really make much sense, but try to keep in mind that we’re talking about Monster Trucks to begin with. What does matter is the film’s decision to load up the film with enough value to make some enjoyable visuals work in the world presented and keep up the pace, as we entertain the story.
As Tripp, Till is fine. He seems to have been hired simply for his ability to make exaggerated facial expressions and have his long hair move around while bouncing around inside of his truck. It’s enough for a film like this and he holds his own against the adult actors and Levy, who seems to be around for similar reasons. If anything, the film could use more weirdness from the adults. Lowe and Lennon are around, but more impov banter could have been fun. Whaley is the kind of character actor who does a lot with a little, so he’s here just enough, but what about Pepper and Glover? They are defined by a couple things, but have little else to do than be different types of authority/fatherly figures.
A movie like this is inherently forgettable for adults, so I may be asking for too much, but given how Paramount spent a whopping $125 million on this thing, one would hope the film could have a bit more personality. Still, that is somewhat made up for by the snappy pace of the film and its delight in showing off what Creech is capable of. Monster Trucks is dopey, but it’s dopey in a fun sort of way that is harmless and sure to make a younger audience smile. I may have had some questions about how the film decides to deal with some of its “bad guy” characters during the car chases, but it’s nothing too egregious to have had me hold back from accepting the film as it is.
Monster Trucks doesn’t put the pedal to the metal in a way that shows us what new greatness there is in live-action kid flicks, but it hardly seems like a film to pile hate on either. It accomplishes what it needs to and has fun doing it. Perhaps having less of a budget could have helped for some scrappier ideas of how to handle its concept, but the film is fine and good enough for those who would want to see it.