It defies expectations that a film titled “Monster Trucks” bears a strong anti-corporate, conservationist message, but these aren’t the car-crunching monster trucks of yore, heralded by the siren calls of “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”
There are actual monsters inside these trucks, so the punny title of “Monster Trucks,” directed by animation veteran Chris Wedge (“Ice Age”), also serves as its almost too-predictable premise.
The film, written by “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Jurassic World” scribe Derek Connolly (with “story by” credits to Matthew Robinson, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger), re-imagines the friendly automobile trope of the “Transformers” and “Herbie” franchises in a way that’s more organic than mechanical. These monsters, or “squishy pieces of squish,” are prehistoric, bioluminescent amphibians that look like beluga whales with tentacles.
So where does one find these fantastic beasts? In the oil fields of North Dakota, where rapacious oil company Terravex, headed by Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe), drills right into an underground water pocket, releasing a pod of the blubbery creatures from their ancient subterranean eco-system. They feed on oil, so one of the monsters gravitates toward a junkyard, where he befriends long-haired teenage gearhead Tripp (Lucas Till).
With the newly-dubbed “Creech” wedged firmly underneath the hood of Tripp’s vintage pickup, cheerily powering the tires with his tentacles, the unlikely duo join forces to evade Terravex’s private security team. The creature’s unexpected talents give a new meaning to the term “gas guzzler,” and a marriage of man, monster and machine is born.
The cast of “Monster Trucks” also defies expectations — Danny Glover, Amy Ryan, Barry Pepper, Thomas Lennon and Holt McCallany all give the film a hint of quality, and there’s not a bad performance to be found. But the characters are underwritten and two-dimensional, with an unfortunate lack of characterization beyond the most basic of stereotypes. Glover and Ryan’s roles are essentially cameos, and the two are vastly underutilized.
The film is powered by the tropes of classic cinema that have built suspense since the silent era, and these old tricks still work. Despite the presence of a perky Jane Levy as his romantic interest, it’s truly “The Perils of Tripp,” as he races a train, works against the clock and is dangled dangerously off a precipice like a postmodern Pauline.
Unfortunately, it’s all too difficult to sympathize with or even like Tripp at times, aside from his affection for adorable blob Creech. He has all the unconscious entitlement of a handsome white guy, possessing a distressing disregard for the destruction of other people’s property with a sense of entitlement toward their resources. It’s an uncomfortable undercurrent that prevents true investment in his character’s journey.
On first glance, “Monster Trucks” looks so-bad-it’s-hilarious, and it’s a bit heartening to report that it’s not quite that. The monsters are cute and charming, the production value is high, and the trio of Lennon, Levy and Lowe bring just enough quirk to brighten up the humorous beats. But the story and characters are so bland and color-by-numbers that it’s hard to care about this juvenile adventure romp, despite the cast and environmentally friendly message. Ultimately, the best thing “Monster Trucks” has going for it are, in fact, the monsters.
Rating: PG, for action, peril, brief scary images and some rude humor.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general release