It’s not easy getting a movie made. We’ve heard accounts of how even celebrated filmmakers with ironclad scripts which they had toiled over for decades could not convince Hollywood paymasters to loosen their purse strings. And then sometimes a Hollywood executive’s four-year old son comes up with a face-slapper of a silly idea like only a four-year old can and somehow a room full of (you would assume sensible) adults all agree with the little tyke… and that’s how we get to Monster Trucks.
That completely true little anecdote alone would normally assure that live-action/CG hybrid action adventure film Monster Trucks gets a footnote in the ongoing tale of weird Hollywood minutiae, but then it goes and earns itself its own chapter by the fact that not only did Paramount actually give $125 million to get this four-year old kid’s pitch actually made into a movie, but last September – four months before the actual release date – Paramount’s parent company Viacom had already braced themselves for a $115 million writedown based purely on analysis of the film’s predicted box office performance.
And what high-concept did all those numbers in the red actually buy them? Monster Trucks follows high school teen Tripp (Lucas Till, laughably a clearly fully grown man) who is so desperate for a decent set of wheels to get out of his small town humdrum, that he’s building up a monster truck from parts scavenged in the local scrapyard. Because apparently this small town doesn’t have public transport or friends you can bum lifts from. What it does have is Terravex, a big oil company run by sleazeball CEO Reece Tenneson, drilling up the country side. During one of these drills (hastily explained with some “science” by Thomas Lennon’s Dr. Jim Dowd), the company accidentally hits a deep underground water-based ecosystem, causing the oil well to explode. And out of the explosion are flung three members of a previously unheard of species. While two are captured and immediately hidden away by Tenneson so that he won’t have to stop drilling for oil just because of some pesky living creatures, one manages to escape by hiding out in the chassis of a wrecked car.
And when Tripp discovers this creature – whom he imaginatively names Creech – at the scrapyard, it puts him in Terravex’s crosshairs. But it may also just be his way out of his dreary life. Creech – brought to life by some uneven CGI and looking like Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon had carnal relations with both an octopus and a bowl of jelly (good luck getting this nightmare vision out of your head) – cannot walk well on his own due to the differences in environment on the surface. His gelatinous bulk can be smooshed into the hollowed out patchwork chassis of Tripp’s truck though, where his floppy tentacles can generate large amounts of torque and power the vehicle (somehow… flashing lights are involved). For Creech, Tripp’s truck is essentially a wheelchair and a way to see this new world, for Tripp it’s… well, actually the movie is not clear on what’s Tripp’s goals are here, as his character arc and relationship with Creech is pretty much non-existent.
Thanks to to the involvement of Tripp’s spunky biology tutor Meredith (the instinctively likable Jane Levy) we at least learn that he’s a bit cleverer than he looks, and that he has a deadbeat dad. Nothing is really done with these revelations though and they ultimately don’t have that much of a bearing on the overall plot, but I guess its nice to know. The biggest thing I learned about the character though is that he has a complete disregard for private property or an understanding of the cost of things. Throughout his adventure to keep Creech out of the hands of Terravex’s surly henchman Burke (Holt McCallany) or his mom’s truck-obsessed Sheriff boyfriend Rick (Barry Pepper), Tripp routinely smashes, ruins and just downright steals a small mountain of money’s worth of property and goods from both random strangers and apparent friends without so much as a blink of a gloopy monster eye.
Not that younger audience members would probably even notice Monster Truck’s total disregards for repercussions though, as director Chris Wedge (making his live-action debut after Ice Age and Robots) keeps thing rapidly moving and colourful enough to entertain. It’s admittedly pure juvenile entertainment aimed squarely at kids, with nary a sly wink or clever bit of prose for the benefits of adults stuck in the audience, but the film at least knows what it is and never gets bogged down trying to disprove it. But there’s no gushingly cute characters (sorry, Creech) or catchy earworms that warrant those repeat viewings so many other child-centric features elicit. There are some flashes of inspired thrills and laughs, particularly in two extended chase sequences, but they are fleeting and overall Monster Trucks mainly offers a mix of “seen before” meh and “I’ll never unsee that” weird.
Thanks to the absurdist genesis of this movie though, there is an upside: Walking into the cinema, my expectations were positively subterranean. And in light of that critical readjustment, I can honestly say that I didn’t find Monster Trucks to be as much of a mangled wreck as I thought it would be. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s still a bad movie, but its completely harmless in its badness. It may be loaded with derivative setpieces, bland dialogue, almost non-existent characterization and ludicrous casting, but its not trying one bit to be high art. That happy-go-lucky earnestness and colourful adventure means that at least young kids should get some kind of diverting fun out of it for a short while. Adults looking for more complete film fare should probably stay the truck away though.