Based on the Monster Trucks title alone, it's understandable that, at this point, moviegoers might not be entirely sure what to expect from Nickelodeon Movies' upcoming live-action film: Monster truck rallies? Monsters that look like trucks? The actual premise is more unique than some might, at face value, assume. Monster Trucks is actually the story of a young man and the monster he befriends.
Following in the footsteps of iconic coming-of-age adventure tales, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial for example, Nickelodeon Movies, Paramount Animation, and Disruption Entertainment have teamed-up to deliver a lovable hero team in Monster Trucks - for a new generation of young moviegoers: Tripp (played by Lucas Till) and Creatch (a computer animated creature). Initially developed as a CGI-animation film, the studio chose to pursue a more ambitious course for their Monster Trucks movie - a blend of high-flying car stunts mixed with CGI creature effects.
Developed by producer Mary Parent and veteran animation director, Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Robots, and Epic), Monster Trucks seeks to riff on the family-friendly adventure tales of the 1980s - while also delivering eye-popping action set pieces (many of which were shot practically on set). Still, beyond CGI creatures and dangerous automobile stunts, Monster Trucks is a story of two vulnerable strangers (one boy and one monster), who learn they are stronger together than on their own - and, as a team, take a stand against a greedy evildoer.
On the surface, it might sound like a silly setup but Wedge intends to ground the zany premise in a heartfelt emotional bond - a boy and his dog (if that dog was a giant squid-like creature from deep underground).
While visiting the Monster Trucks set, Wedge reframed the film's premise for us - from his own perspective, revealing the filmmaker is attempting something much more nuanced than the title, on its own, might suggest.
Tripp's town has been transformed by all this oil money. Friends sold land leases and their parents moved across town to bigger houses - and he doesn’t have any of that wealth. So he acts out. He wants to get out of town, so he’s been building a truck at a junkyard out of parts. He thinks he’s about to finish it - and then this thing comes and it gets him into trouble. Into worse trouble that makes him want to leave even more. But he befriends this thing, the creature, and he hides it. He hides it in this truck.
The creatures in our world are like octopuses on a beach. They’re completely vulnerable and awkward. This giant thing can hardly move, but once it gets into the truck, it realizes, it’s like a paraplegic in a wheelchair - it will do a marathon faster than you can. So it’s a super suit for the creature and it’s a super car for Tripp.
Producer Mary Parent elaborated on the point, suggesting the connection between trip and the creature, which he names "Creatch," will play on classic movie stories of a boy or girl and their [insert strange pet or friend] from a different place, world, or culture:
[Creatch] basically hides inside of this crushed truck, which is towed to a junkyard, which is where Tripp works. They’re getting to know each other and the first time they discover one another in the junkyard is an incredible sequence that Chris has come up with. Tripp ends up saving the creature’s life, there’s this great moment with a car crusher. Tripp lures the creature in and then can’t ultimately do it - and it begins their bond.
Hopefully you leave the filmwanting to see them spend more time together. But, you’ve definitely watched the impact this creature has had on this kid’s life. Tripp has been abandoned by his father. He’s definitely a stranger in his own town. He’s emotionally isolatedand lacking that sort of ability to connect with something. And so, through his relationship with the creature, he’s able to kind of wrestle his own inner-demons, his own inner-monster, if you will, and really sort of learn how to connect again.
Despite the intentions of the Monster Trucks filmmakers, the crew isn't lost on how silly the title and crazy premise might be to outsides. Star Lucas Till, himself, poked fun at how people might react when they first hear about the movie:
If you were to tell someone about it, I think when you say "Monster Trucks," they don’t think "monsters inside trucks." It’s funny to get the reaction of people, literally, "monster trucks."
Nevertheless, Wedge has laid the foundation for a unique friendship between boy and monster, one that requires both heroes to actively work together (a la How to Train Your Dragon) in order to operate their supersuit/supertruck - and take down bad guys.
To that end, the filmmakers spent a lot of time developing and understanding the mechanics of how, exactly, Tripp and Creatch would operate the truck. It may not be easy to completely visualize, without seeing the finished composite of CGI creature and practical truck frame, but co-producer Kurt Williams provided a quick rundown, so that viewers understand how the Monster Truck works as well as the challenges that went into adapting the premise for live-action:
With Transformers, at least they’re creating a full creature. We are challenged with taking a vehicle and conforming this creature to the vehicle - and figure out how he drives it, how he pushes the wheels, how he can adjust the mechanics of the underbelly of the truck. It’s hard because we’re working within a physical constraint that you kind of have, and you’ve got to believe in it. But the things we can do, we talk about this every day, if Monster Truck is flying through the air, can he splay out his wheels? That wouldn’t happen with a real truck. But, it may very well happen in ours.
Our challenge is constantly discussing how much we want to bend those rules and where we get into what feels like an animated movie as opposed to the real-world physics we built for the movie - and want everyone to believe in. There are parts of the truck that we’ll takeout because [Creatch is] physically powering the truck. So, we don’t have engines. That allowed us to get some camera angles within the truck as well, a lot of that we have to do computer generated - because even a point of view of the creature is unique to the world. He sees the world in a certain way and we have to reflect that.
It's easy to be cynical about the high-concept premise of Monster Trucks; however, Hollywood history has, on occasion, turned even the strangest ideas into blockbuster hits - especially when it comes to films aimed at young viewers - and in a period of time where the multiplex is dominated by sequels and reboots, not to mention a steady stream of superhero properties, Monster Trucks could turn out to be a quirky breath of fresh air.
On set, Parent suggested that there simply hasn't been anything quite like the movie they were making - meaning that the team's execution of their idea could make or break the film:
We haven’t really seen anything like it - which has been part of the challenge as well: to create a creature that you feel is from a subterranean world, could actually mold itself into a truck this way, have that kind of power, all the way down to the cilia on the tentacles that are able to move the rotors. What kind of creature could actually do that? And then, what have we not seen before that doesn’t feel like it’s out of something that we’ve seen regurgitated? A lot of work’s gone into that.
I guess everyone will let us know when we’re done, if we succeeded in doing that. But, the guys at MPC [visual effects] are super talented, and I think we’re coming up with something pretty cool that will definitely feel like you’re drawn to it - in a way you wish you could have one as well. Although, I’m sure a lot of parents wouldn’t be too thrilled with their kids having one of these creatures. But that emotional connection, that’s very much the essence of the film. It’s anchoring it on an emotional level, because the action is all great, but if it’s not connected or tethered to character or emotion, the rooting interest, it’s just not the same.
The challenges of making Monster Trucks a success (both in terms of story and at the box office) clearly weren't lost on Parent either - given that she outright admitted they've worked hard to adapt the idea but it will ultimately be moviegoers who tell the filmmakers if Monster Trucks is a budding franchise-in-the-making or a missed opportunity on a bankable premise.
There's certainly potential in Monster Trucks, especially if Creatch can become the next lovable movie creature and the practical action, which includes a twelve-foot high jump (that isn't CGI), can deliver something truly unique - as Parent promised. As the bar is driven higher and higher each year for action-spectacle, there's little room for good ideas that stumble in their execution.
Will kids want their own Creatch or will Monster Trucks get buried under higher-profile franchise properties? We'll know more when the film hits theaters on January 13, 2017.
Monster Trucks is set for release on January 13, 2017.