The story of a hunky high school senior who discovers an oil-guzzling sea beast (think “Sesame Street” meets the Kraken), and then knots its tentacles around the chassis of his custom jalopy in a perverse attempt to pimp his ride, “Monster Trucks” seems like such an impossibly stupid idea for a movie that it’s easy to forget how it derives from a rather proud history of Hollywood entertainment. After all, there have been any number of studio spectacles about a young boy, or a teenage boy, or — in this case — an obviously grown-ass man doing a hilarious job of pretending to be a teenage boy — whose frustrated small town existence is turned upside down when he befriends a strange and unexpectedly sweet creature that teaches him about growing up or whatever. “Monster Trucks,” however aimless and confused it may be, rolls down a road paved by verified hits like “E.T.,” “Free Willy,” and last year’s excellent “Pete’s Dragon.”
But there’s one key thing that sets “Monster Trucks” apart; one major difference in its design that many viewers may never know, but most will nevertheless be able to feel in their bones. You see, while all of the movies mentioned above were meant to be enjoyed by four-year-olds, “Monster Trucks” was initially conceived by one.
That’s right, this $125 million dollar movie — a movie with such explosive blockbuster potential that Paramount has already taken an $115 million write-down in order to brace for the disaster of its release — was born from an idea that one of the studio’s executives hatched with the help of his toddler. Apologies to anyone out there who’s been hustling themselves half to death in order to get their profoundly important indie feature off the ground, but this really happened (believe it or not, Paramount has since parted ways with that executive). And, as much as it sounds like a scene that Robert Altman cut from “The Player” because he thought it was too absurd, stuff like this probably happens all the time. Inspiration comes from unexpected places. I mean, Shakespeare got the idea for “Romeo and Juliet” from turning Colin Firth into a cuck. The world as we know it is shaped by such strangeness.
Alas, “Monster Trucks” isn’t Shakespeare. It isn’t even Marlowe. This witless bore was written by the screenwriter of “Jurassic World,” and it feels beneath him, too. There isn’t a single clever line in this whole thing, not a single joke that’s “aimed at the parents,” not a single moment of giddy camp fun that suggests the movie knows how ridiculous it is.
Set in a North Dakota town so ravaged by the recession that most of the local characters can’t even afford their own arcs, the film begins during a dark night of drilling, as the greedy CEO of Terravex Oil Company (Rob Lowe?) decides to ignore the objections of his spineless resident scientist (Thomas Lennon) and blast through an aquatic network of subterranean tunnels. Lowe is a treasure, and he does yeoman’s work here, but the sad fact of the matter is that some people just weren’t born to shout: “We are sitting on an ocean of oil!”
Anyway, he’s too blinded by visions of a cabinet position in Donald Trump’s White House to notice that his machinery displaced a trio of gelatinous, alien-like creatures from their home in the depths of the Earth, one of whom hides in the nearby junkyard where a local adonis named Tripp (26-year-old Lucas Till, television’s new “MacGyver”) works for a paraplegic Danny Glover — a generous reading of the film would argue that his impaired movement speaks to the townspeople’s communal desire for escape, a more honest reading would argue that Glover didn’t want to stand up for either of his two pointless scenes.
Tripp, who lives with his mom (Amy Ryan, one scene) and her sheriff boyfriend (Barry Pepper!!), is super into trucks because he wants to build a way to drive out of dodge and visit his absentee father. And before you ask “Why doesn’t Tripp just call an Uber, which would be infinitely cheaper and faster than Frankensteining a vehicle together from scratch?,” you should know that Tripp’s defining characteristic is that he’s really dumb. In fact, one of the the story’s genuine saving graces is that its protagonist isn’t the shy, invisible, lovestruck fool who usually backstops movies like this. Worshipped by his classmates and lusted after by his tutor (“Don’t Breathe” star Jane Levy), Tripp is almost as stupid as the lovable leviathan he eventually shackles to his engine.
Creech — that’s what Tripp names his toothy pet blob — precariously straddles the line between cute and scary. His smile is endearing; his tentacles less so. Little kids will likely cut straight from terror to disinterest, bypassing the cuddly middle stage where movies like this make their magic happen. They’ll also miss out on the part where Tripp and Creech form a meaningful bond, because that seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. Not only is it totally unclear what the squishy beast teaches our hero about himself, it’s also unclear if Creech likes living inside of Tripp’s truck or if Tripp just enslaved Creech there because the diesel-drinking monster makes it easier for him to do some sweet off-roading.
In fairness, “Ice Age” director Chris Wedge — here making his live-action debut — displays an obvious comfort with manipulating CG characters through space, and the scenes where Creech and co are outracing the Terravex death squads are playful and inventive enough to provide a glimpse of what this movie could have been if it weren’t so remarkably bad in most other respects. A glimpse of what this movie could have been if, ya know, it wasn’t so easy to believe that “Monster Trucks” was dreamed up by someone who wasn’t yet old enough to actually watch it.
“Monster Trucks” opens in theaters on Friday, January 13th.