Last year’s Pete’s Dragon provided a poetic take on friendship despite real-world problems getting in the way: A logging company interrupts the secluded lives of a boy and his dragon, leading to a conflict between preservationist and capitalist ideologies. Strip that of its nuance and strap it to a Hemi, and you have Chris Wedge’s Monster Trucks, in which an oil company, as archetypally evil as it probably would be in real life (only upfront about it here), drills into a subterranean water passage, popping out its ancient, pressurized inhabitants like champagne corks. Two are captured, one escapes. In Pete’s Dragon, Pete and Elliot the dragon bond over their shared wildness, primal kindness and empathy too innocent for the industry of humanity. The monster and truck bond over nothing more than wordplay.
Monster Trucks, its pseudo-environmentalism aside, is mainly about the importance of vehicular machismo. Tripp—played by Lucas Till with a hyper-millennial name, a heartthrob haircut and decent physical comedy chops—tells his monster pal at the end that “he was a good truck” and that’s that. Not quite sentimental. The monster pet, named Creech (short for Creature) and rescued by Tripp/utilized as a Frankenstein-ian junkyard car’s engine, isn’t instantly endearing. Elliot the dragon looks like a gigantic furry green dog; it plays fetch with tree trunks and wags its massive tail. Creech looks like an obese, acne-ridden, rubbery trashbag with the tentacles of a giant squid and an ergonomic situation too easily resembling that of a paraplegic. It spins the workings of the truck with its bioluminescent cilia.
The film can’t decide how to portray Creech, having it alternate between cute—when it gurgles as it makes violent love to the baby bottle-like oil canisters offered for suckling (it eats oil, OK?)—and terrifying, as in when it opens its rotationally toothy, lamprey-like mouth. This is a kid’s movie like the 26-year old Till is a high schooler. A scene where a monster truck-driving rich kid (is that what’s taken as snobbery in North Dakota?) pulls up to mock the school bus-borne Tripp is only funny when noticing the actual child extras surrounding the square-jawed leading man.
Meredith, Tripp’s assigned biology tutor played by the sharp Jane Levy, is a welcome addition to the film as more and more townsfolk find out about the stowaway cephalopod. Levy is in on the joke, threading sarcasm, hopeless infatuation and humorously understated facial expressions into the broadest moments of a movie so broad it’s titled Monster Trucks. She’s far too good for this movie, though she and Thomas Lennon’s sniveling oil company geologist alleviate any boredom and elevate the proceedings. Rob Lowe shows up momentarily as an inexplicably southern baddy while Danny Glover rolls around in a wheelchair as Tripp’s barely-sketched boss, drawing parallels to a monster that were probably less questionable two or three rewrites ago.
The good guys get together with the other good guys and the bad guys chase them. Multiple creatures are put in multiple cars; helicopter shots cut to head-on cab shots of stars yelling “wahoo”; and there’s a final drive to throw these nasty flesh sacs into a pit that’ll put them back where they belong. Next: The oil company crisis sort of quietly solves itself; Tripp builds a car so that he can be a man; and everyone moves on from the weird underground community of hivemind narwhals.
So yes, the story makes no sense and the relationships fall flat, but the truck action is surprisingly effective thanks to some entertaining and imaginative set pieces that feel like they just missed the annual Fast and Furious brainstorm. A multi-level rooftop car chase is the first time the film seems to hit its stride, making a clear-enough case for its what-if craziness.
Parts of the film pop with a ludicrous cartoonishness perfect for rattling around in the heads of car-loving kids pretending their toys are driving along the highway while looking out the window on the way home. Sticking with that technicolor aesthetic completely (removing more mature inclusions like multiple, intense car crashes and explosions that definitely result in the deaths of the drivers) would let the goofy, stupid heart of the film earn its place alongside its motor-monster shenanigans. It’s certainly more entertaining than it has a right to be, but its milquetoast weirdness never goes full throttle.
Director: Chris Wedge
Writers: Derek Connolly; Matthew Robinson, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger (story)
Starring: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Barry Pepper, Thomas Lennon
Release Date: January 13, 2017