Director: Chris Wedge
Cast: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Thomas Lennon, Barry Pepper, Holt McCallany, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Amy Ryan, Frank Whaley
MPAA Rating: (for action, peril, brief scary images, and some rude humor)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 1/13/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2017
One does not exactly anticipate the idea of slavery to come up in a kids' movie about a boy, an octopus-like creature, and their shared love of big pickup trucks. That's not to say the movie brings it up directly, because, to be honest, it doesn't even seem as if the movie understands the implications of the relationship between the teenager and the creature. Such are the strange ways of Monster Trucks, an allegedly family-friendly movie in which a teen makes a sentient animal into his slave.
Admittedly, this is a slight simplification of what happens, but it is only a slight one. It's also within the context of a movie that is, well, pretty simple in the first place. Essentially, the difference is negligible.
The teen is Tripp (Lucas Till), who lives in a small town in North Dakota, takes the bus to high school, and works at a junkyard in the evenings. He wants to leave this dead-end place. It's what his father did, because screenwriter Derek Connolly knows that any movie in which a kid befriends a fantastical creature must contain an absentee parent of some sort. Why else would the kid need to befriend an amphibious monster that lives in an underground system of lakes and rivers (making the amphibious part of its biology one of evolutionarily convenience for the screenplay).
The monster, which Tripp later dubs "Creech," is forced from its home when an oil expedition drills through the underground water system. Creech escapes the clutches of Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe), the CEO of the oil company, but two others of its kind are captured to be studied by one of the company's scientists (Thomas Lennon).
By the way, Creech's species consumes oil. That's how it ends up at the junkyard, looking for a meal. A frightened Tripp tries to kill it by luring it into an industrial crusher, only to change his mind after seeing its relative cuteness. As in all such situations, the two become buddies.
While trying to escape Tenneson's hired goons, Creech makes its way on to the chassis and inside the body of Tripp's beat-up pickup truck. As it turns out, Creech is something of an engine, using its tentacles to spin the truck's axels. The biological explanations are left to Meredith (Jane Levy), Tripp's biology tutor, who ends up helping and has a crush on Tripp (He's the kind of guy who's not smart enough to go for the cute science nerd, which leads to an uncomfortable joke about her not needing to worry about walking home alone).
Eventually, Tripp redesigns his truck to optimize Creech's power, essentially turning the creature into a prisoner forced into labor for Tripp's convenience (The truck's grill even looks like prison bars). Obviously, this is something of an issue.
Kids won't notice, of course. Actually, one wonders if they'll notice much of anything beyond the movie's visual effects and its chaotic chase scenes. This is a surprisingly violent movie, although most of its violence is dismissed by way of playing it as a joke. That's when one wonders if a joke aimed at kids that is filled with a lot of destruction and probable vehicular manslaughter is a joke worth telling. Then there's the scene where Creech, driving under the influence of the chemicals in gasoline, goes berserk and pummels cars that get in its way. It could be argued that the whole sequence is against road rage and driving while intoxicated, but then again, such lessons don't typically end with a brush-off punch line.
Ignoring the movie's more problematic material, there are a few neat things here. There's a chase through town that mostly avoids destruction and focuses on Creech's ability to turn the truck into a rooftop-hopping, alleyway-shimmying, and all-around nimble means of transport. Then again, there's also the scene in which Tripp reunites with his father (Frank Whaley) and destroys dad's home in a fit of anger.
Levy is charming, Lennon is amusing, and Barry Pepper, as the local sheriff who's dating Tripp's mom (Amy Ryan), makes the most of a running joke about wanting to keep his cruiser clean. Then again, Till's performance is filled with random acts of mugging for the camera (as if he suddenly realizes the kind of movie of which he's a part), Ryan is underused (or, depending on one's perspective, spared the indignity of more screen time), and maybe there really isn't much to the joke about the cleanliness of Pepper's character.
The point is that there isn't much to expect from Monster Trucks. What we do expect—the child-oriented humor, the movie's familiar thematic concerns, the reliance on effects and stunts—is, for the most part, harmless. Then there's that other stuff, which isn't.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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