Monster Trucks is an OK kids movie that lacks most of the substance of the classic 1980s Amblin productions it tries to emulate.
Tripp (Lucas Till) is a high school student living in North Dakota. He spends his days dreaming of leaving his small hometown and working at the local junkyard owned by Mr. Weathers (Danny Glover), prioritizing fixing his truck over bettering his grades. After an accident at an oil drilling site lets loose three unknown creatures that lived below the surface, Tripp encounters one of them in the junkyard and they form a fast bond. Tripp realizes that the monster - who he dubs Creech - feeds off of oil and takes a liking to his truck. With some modifications, Creech can act as the "engine" for the vehicle, allowing Tripp to drive down the highway.
Creech's emergence also draws the interest of Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe), owner of the oil company desperate to gain access to the oil contained in Creech's habitat. Tenneson plans to eliminate Creech and the rest of his species, which leads Tripp and his biology tutor Meredith (Jane Levy) on a journey to save their new subterranean friend and return him home safely, stopping the greedy Tenneson in the process.
Filmed back in 2014, Monster Trucks has had a long and winding road to get to the big screen, undergoing numerous release date changes over the past few years. Now that it has finally arrived in theaters, the hope is that Monster Trucks can be an entertaining family film to liven up the doldrums of January. On that front, the team is partially successful. Monster Trucks is an OK kids movie that lacks most of the substance of the classic 1980s Amblin productions it tries to emulate.
The screenplay, credited to Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), relies heavily on the E.T. formula by putting a different spin on the "boy and his dog" trope. While he does a solid job of managing the rather outlandish premise (monsters control trucks from the inside), the execution is a mixed bag. In terms of positives, the relationship between Creech and Tripp has some touching moments and is very much the heart of the movie. Their dynamic may not be as fleshed out as similar titles, but some viewers may still find it sweet. Creech's cartoonish design makes him a lovable presence, and he endears himself to the audience with his unbridled enthusiasm and antics. Children in particular will love Creech, who really makes the film fun.
Where Connolly struggles is characterization. As a protagonist, Tripp does not always embody the qualities of the everyman embarking on a quest. He is a little too emotionally distant and the way he treats his fellow classmates (including Meredith's obvious romantic advances) paints him in a semi-unlikable manner. The screenplay attempts to flesh Tripp out with a Steven Spielberg-esque backstory of a fractured family, but this isn't enough to make up for his shortcomings as the hero. It's expected that most of the time would be dedicated to Tripp and Creech, but their connection is really the only one that receives any kind of development. The other various arcs come across as unearned and are simply there to neatly tie things up. However, Till does make the most of the material and plays off the CGI Creech nicely.
The supporting characters in the film all fill various archetypes that are somewhat typical for a story such as this. Meredith is the brainy sidekick who doubles as the love interest, but as stated earlier, her blossoming relationship with Tripp never really clicks. Lowe's Tenneson is merely a two-dimensional antagonist, motivated solely by his desire for more oil. There isn't much to the performance below the surface, and while that does work for the purposes of this narrative, that doesn't make it very compelling. Barry Pepper and Thomas Lennon do decent work in key roles as Sheriff Rick and Dr. Dowd, respectively, but those parts are also thin and follow fairly predictable trajectories. Still, none of the actors in Monster Trucks deliver what could be called a bad performance, it's more of the writing responsible for the movie's failings.
Director Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Robots) makes the leap to live-action filmmaking here, and he is actually mostly successful. Monster Trucks is competently made, including some exciting car chase sequences that showcase what Creech is capable of. Wedge isn't breaking any new ground with his approach to shooting the action, but he still finds a way to make it entertaining and gets the job done. Wedge and his team deserve credit for realizing they were working with something ridiculous on the outset, and he nails the tone perfectly. Though the film has the necessary dramatic beats, it's never overly-serious and feels like a child's imagination brought to life (a true statement, considering the movie's origins). Monster Trucks also has a good pace to it, as it chugs long through the sub two-hour runtime and doesn't overstay its welcome.
In the end, Monster Trucks is a film that's made for viewers of a certain age and never really strives to go beyond that. There's something to appreciate there, as it really is nothing more than a goofy, harmless kids movie that will help pass the time away before more high-profile offerings hit theaters later this year. The script is ultimately what prevents it from becoming a memorable, timeless classic, but Monster Trucks is still a fine, though disposable, time at the movies for the family. Children who are fans of big trucks and creatures will certainly have a blast.