Monster Trucks

What kind of MPG do those creatures get? Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Thomas Lennon, Rob Lowe and Danny Glover star in Monster Trucks.

Monster TrucksCast of Characters:
Tripp Coley – Lucas Till
Meredith – Jane Levy
Dr. Jim Dowd – Thomas Lennon
Reece Tenneson – Rob Lowe
Rick – Barry Pepper
Burke – Holt McCallany
Mr. Weathers – Danny Glover
Cindy Coley – Amy Ryan
Wade Coley – Frank Whaley

Director – Chris Wedge
Screenplay – Derek Connolly
Producer – Mary Parent & Denis L. Stewart
Rated PG for action, peril, brief scary images, and some rude humor

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While attempting to tap into an untouched oil reserve, Terravex oil tycoon Reece Teeneson (Rob Lowe) and his chief scientist Dr. Jim Dowd (Thomas Lennon) discover a mysterious ecosystem deep down beneath the earth. Disregarding this unprecedented finding and choosing to power right through it, Teeneson’s team creates a mishap that leads to their rig being completely destroyed. What they didn’t expect at all, though, was that they just so happened to have displaced three subterranean creatures from their underground habitat. Two of them they manage to capture, but one has gotten away.

That brings us to the jaded Tripp Coley (Lucas Till), a high school senior who’s dying to get away from his small town and stepfather/local sheriff Rick (Barry Pepper). After school, on his spare time, he works at the local junkyard run by Mr. Weathers (Danny Glover). It’s during one particular night, while working after hours on his dream monster truck, that he stumbles upon the runaway creature who has a strange craving for oil. Things get even weirder when Tripp soon discovers that this creatures, which he’s named “Creech”, is capable of self-generating power for his yet to be completed truck.

Of course, as you’d expect, Terravex hasn’t forgotten about its missing find, and has sent out henchman Burke (Holt McCallany) and his team to find it. It’ll be up to Tripp and his bookish classmate/tutor Meredith (Jane Levy) to save Creech and his family before it’s too late.

Imagine if The Love Bug was cross-bred with E.T. You’d wind up with Monster Trucks.

Now, imagine the dreadful month for film that is January, combined with a flick that when you first heard about it thought Hollywood has finally found the bottom of the barrel and is still somehow trying to desperately scrape their way past it to see what else they can find. You should get a recipe for disaster.

Well, surprisingly, and I don’t say surprisingly lightly here, wrong. Call it low expectations or call it anything being better when followed after The Bye Bye Man, but Monster Trucks isn’t the terrible time I was expecting to be; in fact, it was kinda enjoyable. Sure, “kinda enjoyable” may not be the blurb studios are hoping to slap on their eventual Blu-ray/DVD release (but Paramount has my full permission to use it if they wish to), but given the many phrases I’ve used to describe films in the month of January – “utter garbage” being the kindest – kinda enjoyable is a welcome relief.

Look, I get that this is the type of film that people will act like me saying anything even remotely positive about it is like I’m giving it an A+. This is a flawed film, but one that carries itself with enough charm and energy to overcome the moments where it stalls.

Director Chris Wedge is a suitable choice for a project such as this, having come from the Ice Age franchise (director for the first film, executive producer for the four sequels). While the Ice Age films aren’t Pixar, they’re hardly terrible either. Following an entirely animated resume, Monster Trucks has Wedge directing his first live-action feature, and though it’s a respectable transition, it isn’t entirely smooth. Wedge and screenwriter Derek Connolly (Safety not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) show a disregard toward consequences during crucial moments of the film, particularly during a mid-film chase between Creech and the Terravex goons that flies right over the heads of every nearby driver that apparently is unable to see a giant monster truck with tentacles crashing through buildings and hopping over rooftops.

Also, some of the jokes provided by Connolly that I’m thinking were meant to be aimed at the adults land clumsily. For instance, when Jane Levy’s Meredith is curtly told by Lucas Till’s Tripp to go back home late at night, her response is that she might get abducted. It’s clear this isn’t a Close Encounters of the Third Kind reference, but more a reference to her looks, and for a film aimed mainly at children, it’s a joke that seems awfully out of place. Not that family movies can’t have jokes for adults. Pixar and DreamWorks animated films are able to bring the best of both worlds to their pictures, but if you’re gonna fit jokes for older audiences in your family flicks, at least make them clever.

Still, for the most part, Wedge does a fairly solid job at infusing Monster Trucks with a childlike B-Movie sensibility that while rocky in places manages to stay on track for most of the film. No one’s gonna be arguing that this belongs in the same company of the best that Amblin Entertainment had to offer during its heyday, but there’s a certain lightness and whimsy in tone that will recall to mind many of the Amblin family adventures of the ’80s.

The strength of this film, though, isn’t Wedge or Connolly, but young stars Lucas Till (playing the oldest looking high school kid you’ll see this year) and Jane Levy, the latter of whom is taking a massive night-and-day departure with this film following her beatdown by Stephen Lang’s blind man in the R-rated thriller Don’t Breathe. Both Till and Levy have great chemistry together and provide the film with an enthusiastic spark you normally wouldn’t expect in a January picture. There’s also an endearing quality to the bond that grows between the two and Creech. I’ll admit, initially, while watching what is essentially a giant, puppy dog-eyed squid sucking down barrels of oil, I was kinda struck at how bizarre this whole picture is, but Creech does manage to grow on you and it helps that he and his subterranean kind are well-rendered designs.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Rob Lowe is definitely slumming it for a paycheck, unnecessary Southern accent and all, and Amy Ryan is literally in blink and you’ll miss her mode (she also must work the longest shifts ever, leaving for work at the beginning of the film and not getting off until near the end). That said, Thomas Lennon and Barry Pepper are both game, Lennon bringing his trademark quirkiness to the scientist with a conscience role and Pepper providing a bit of a heart to what could’ve been the throwaway step-dad role. Holt McCallany plays the bulked up antagonist ’cause it’s Holt McCallany and that’s all he seems to get cast as (his character Burke acts like he has carte blanche legal authority, even by showing blatant insubordination to cops, yet he actually has as much authority as a middle school hall monitor). McCallany plays his role with as much sincere machismo as if he was in a Die Hard film, which might seem a little overboard, but you can’t fault him for going all-in for his pay. Typecast or not, McCallany plays it well.

Easily the biggest surprise of 2017 so far, Monster Trucks isn’t the second coming of E.T. by any means, but thanks to two charming lead turns from Lucas Till and Jane Levy and a light approach from director Chris Wedge that’s mostly effective, it’s far from the disaster I was initially expecting it to be. Maybe I’m still damning it with faint praise in a way, but it provides enough fun for kids, and while the film is primarily targeted at them, it’s not like parents will feel insulted for having to sit through this with their kids either. Overall, not perfect, but there are still a thousand other worse ways you could spend the weekend with your children.

I mean, would you have preferred another Norm of the North?

I give Monster Trucks a B- (★★★).

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