Some movies just feel like they’re destined for an unceremonious January release. Monster Trucks is one of those movies. First announced as a collaboration between Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon all the way back in 2013, this movie shifted release dates about four times before it finally came to theatres in January of 2017. Monster Trucks was even allegedly the reason why Paramount’s highly profitable and well-received action movie sequel, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, had its release date moved up several months from Christmas to Summer of 2015, to prevent the studio from taking a huge box office loss when Monster Trucks started running into serious production trouble that year.
Considering that this movie was supposed to come out in mid-2015 originally, you can imagine that the final product of Monster Trucks is certainly not high art. Paramount has very evidently sent the movie off to die in the desolate January movie calendar of this year as well, since there’s no way that Monster Trucks has any hope of making back its rather bloated budget. Nickelodeon even tried to pull out of the project as late as post-production to boot, since both they and Paramount had already started bleeding cash over Monster Trucks, long before the movie would even hit theatres and have any chance of making some money back for either party.
It’s kind of a shame too, since, for better or worse, this is an original movie pitch and not an adaptation. Surprisingly, it’s also quite watchable, if you come in with lowered expectations. Monster Trucks is still silly, illogical and would probably have been better off as an animated Nickelodeon cartoon series, rather than a live-action feature film made for theatres, but for a movie that suffered for so long in development hell, you’d think it would be a lot more painful to sit through. It’s dopey, disposable junk food for the mind, but Monster Trucks is fairly inoffensive, and both kids and adults could certainly do worse during these dismal January weeks.
Monster Trucks stars Lucas Till as Tripp Coley, a high school senior who doesn’t get the attention he craves from his family, of course, and makes a hobby of fixing up beat-up old vehicles for his paraplegic boss, Mr. Weathers, played by Danny Glover. Tripp is also pursued by attractive, intelligent fellow senior, Meredith, played by Jane Levy, who also serves as his school tutor. The two then end up caught up in a strange conflict after a formerly undiscovered subterranean marine life form makes a home out of a broken-down truck that Tripp had been working on, after narrowly escaping capture by a crooked oil company.
It may be original, though Monster Trucks is certainly a bit strange when you describe it aloud. Nonetheless, it’s kind of astonishing that the movie achieves any redeeming moment at all, considering its bizarre inciting incident. The movie’s subterranean monster, Creech is undeniably adorable and charming most notably, and helps to make up for the movie’s rather bare-bones action-comedy storytelling. There’s also a surprisingly great cast behind this movie, including Amy Ryan as Tripp’s mother, Cindy, Rob Lowe as main villain and oil tycoon, Reece Tenneson, and Thomas Lennon as Tenneson’s scientist underling, Dr. Dowd, among other examples.
Disappointingly though, some of the actors in the movie are barely featured, possibly due to Monster Trucks likely leaving lots of unused footage on the cutting room floor. Ryan and Glover are almost entirely cut out of the movie for example, with both showing up at the beginning and ending, while Glover at least gets something of a presence in the climax. We see more of Lowe and Lennon, but even Lowe doesn’t always feel like he’s in the movie all that much, considering that he’s supposed to be the main antagonist. A huge chunk of this movie centers around entirely around Tripp, Meredith and Creech, mostly consisting of cute moments with Creech, because he’s the best trick in the movie’s bag at this point.
Another issue with the characters is that Tripp can sometimes be a bit unlikable as a lead personality. He doesn’t treat Meredith very well for most of the movie, seemingly for no reason, and even with Creech, he often seems huffy, impatient and spoiled, which makes him harder to sympathize with. In the second half of the movie, Tripp’s character does level out and become more appealing, but early on, even by the standards of a teenager, he’s not the most charming hero by any means. Tripp at least gets a bit more development than most of the other characters, who are all barely developed at all in the end, but Till is often given too little to work with in the early portions, having to lean on Creech to give the movie any sense of early appeal.
Monster Trucks has glimmers of interesting and inspired ideas behind its storyline, but ultimately, it feels surprisingly pedestrian, ticking the expected boxes of a family-friendly action-comedy, with few surprises beyond the unusual presence of Creech. The movie tries for something of an anti-fossil fuels message, namely by making its villain a crooked oil tycoon and having his big plan threaten the livelihoods of some adorable creatures that eat oil, but it never really finds a clever or effective way to integrate it into the story. Instead, much of the movie is just Tripp and Creech causing trouble around their small town. In fact, it’s kind of amusing to make a game out of the movie by pointing out the amount of times that Tripp just unrealistically gets away with causing a bunch of property damage and mayhem, even when the authorities can easily identify him!
There are moments of fun in Monster Trucks, even when it’s objectively not that great of a movie, but they’re also dotted between a bunch of cliched, dull moments that don’t feel creative or engaging. These moments also have a weird contrast with the hilariously irresponsible roadway carnage that sometimes occurs in various scenes throughout Monster Trucks, at worst displaying a moral for children that endangering people and destroying property doesn’t matter if you’re trying to protect your friend, or even your pet. These consequence-free moments will nonetheless amuse adults who are fully aware of the lack of intelligence that Monster Trucks will inevitably sport for them, but if you do bring kids to the movie, you might want to stress to them that this is not how things work in the real world!
Chris Wedge directs Monster Trucks, which has the unfortunate distinction of being Wedge’s first live-action directing effort. This is yet more of an indication that Monster Trucks might have been better off as a fully animated movie, rather than a live-action movie. Wedge has exclusively worked with Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox Animation in the feature film space before now, having helmed Epic, Robots and the original Ice Age movie. In fairness, those are among the better Blue Sky Studios movies, and for what it’s worth, Wedge doesn’t do a terrible job directing Monster Trucks, even if the directing flourishes seem to be reserved for just a handful of scenes.
When Monster Trucks is letting loose and having fun, it’s fairly enjoyable to watch for those who aren’t expecting too much. There’s a mischievous energy to the movie that does feel at least somewhat infectious, but any time there isn’t an eye-popping action moment, Monster Trucks feels far too boring. Wedge doesn’t seem like he truly cares about mining any depth or complexity from the personalities on display, so the actors don’t seem to have been given a whole lot of direction. In most scenes, it feels like the actors are winging it, which, frankly, isn’t that hard to do, since this movie’s script is pretty trite and shallow.
I doubt that kids will care about the characters’ simplistic performances and dispositions, but adults will definitely get the sense that all of Monster Trucks’ heart is within its fictional beast. Like I said, Creech is at least difficult not to love whenever he’s on screen, but the human characters don’t get nearly the same level of care in the direction. Kids in particular will savour the senseless destruction and frequent mischief throughout Monster Trucks, but there’s nothing to really dig into beyond that simple-minded amusement.
The soundtrack in Monster Trucks is at least pretty passable. It’s predictably brash, it has the kind of energy that everything outside of the action scenes disappointingly lacks, and it does do a decent job of providing an acceptable sense of charm and whimsy to the production. The music suite, composed by Dave Sardy, is obviously nothing special, and has no sense of distinction as far as family-friendly action-comedies go, but the music does get the job done.
The rest of the audio work doesn’t have that much punch behind it, since this movie does seem to be concerned about being frightening to children, hence the softening of the sound mixing. There’s a few scenes where the power and ferocity of Creech and other vehicles are cranked up a bit more, but much of Monster Trucks’ audio wouldn’t feel that out-of-place in, once again, an animated movie. This results in action scenes that are entertaining to watch, but feel pretty lightweight to listen to, not leaving much of a monstrous element to the titular ‘monster trucks’, or anything else for that matter.
I imagine that a huge chunk of the surprisingly large budget of Monster Trucks went to the work of rendering and realizing Creech, who, in all honesty, is actually not that bad an effect. Creech is a convincing character, and it’s easy to forget that he’s an effect in several scenes, considering how well-animated and full of personality he can often be. It’s almost enough to make you wish that Creech was the main character and the provider of the story’s perspective, rather than Tripp, since Creech defies the rest of the movie’s fairly standard production values with some much better visual work. There’s a few other visual flourishes beyond Creech as well, which are decent, though again, outside of the action scenes, there isn’t a whole lot of real style to Monster Trucks.
Monster Trucks is also available to see in 3D, and the 3D presentation of this movie is about what you would expect. The 3D is fairly competent for the most part, adding some eye-popping flourishes to the action scenes, and enhancing a few of the jokes by appearing to fling things around the audience, though compared to many family-friendly movies, the 3D in Monster Trucks is nothing that special or essential. The 3D is good enough to merit the price of a 3D ticket if you enjoy 3D movies, but if you’d rather just watch this movie flat in 2D, you’re really not missing anything. It’s too bad that the 3D couldn’t pick up the slack in the more visually drab moments that come up throughout Monster Trucks, but like the rest of the presentation, it’s at least serviceable enough, even if nowhere near worthy of this movie’s insane $125 million budget.
Monster Trucks is already a contender for the biggest box office bomb of 2017, but I’d be hard pressed to declare it an early contender for one of the year’s worst movies. There are many far, far worse movies than Monster Trucks, even by the rock-bottom standards of January. Kids especially will find a pretty passable distraction with this movie, while adults who are watching ironically will have a decent amount of fun with just how weird and silly a lot of Monster Trucks’ better moments are.
More than being a bad movie that negatively defines 2017 in the end, I honestly don’t know if anyone is even going to remember Monster Trucks after this month. It’s the quintessential January movie in many respects, being a shallow, ridiculous and highly disposable production that even the studio doesn’t seem to have faith in. Considering the myriad production troubles that Monster Trucks ran into before it finally limped into theatres, I’m not surprised that Paramount and Nickelodeon have both already written it off as a huge loss, despite the fact that it definitely could have ended up worse than it is.
Monster Trucks is overall mediocre at best, and a ludicrous spectacle of failed studio ambition at worst, but considering 2017’s especially lousy January movie calendar, it’s probably one of the less bad movies that this unfortunate month is bringing over the next couple of weeks that’s left of it. You could just as easily skip this movie if you’d rather just hang on to your cinematic funds for bigger and better big screen releases that are coming in a matter of weeks, but if you simply must indulge in it, Monster Trucks is an acceptable good time, so long as objective quality isn’t required for your movie enjoyment.
- Creech is well-realized and cute
- A few fun action scenes
- Surprisingly solid supporting cast
- Surprisingly solid supporting cast is largely wasted
- Storyline is both absurd and cliched
- Tripp can be an unlikable lead