Some fall night, in the late 2020s, the incoming freshmen at colleges around the country are going to get nostalgic. They’re going to bond, sharing stories of their even-younger youths. High school hijinks, embarrassing anecdotes, pop-culture memories. Someone, over a decade from now, will bring up a movie they watched at a sleepover in elementary or maybe middle school, and a wave of recognition will hit the other students. That movie will be Monster Trucks.
This is not, by any stretch, to say that I think it’s a good movie. It is, however, a movie that is very good at being what it’s trying to be: a kid-oriented adventure that would be right at home in the late ’80s or early ’90s. High-schooler Tripp (Lucas Till) finds a weird, oil-guzzling creature — quickly dubbed “Creech” — in the junkyard where he works until he can get out of his North Dakota town. His parents are divorced; his father (Frank Whaley) absent and his mother (Amy Ryan) nearly so. Tripp spends more time on screen butting heads with his mom’s new boyfriend, Sheriff Rick (Barry Pepper).
Rick naturally aligns himself with the oil company that drilled into the underground lake where Creech was living. They want to get him — I say “him” because the creatures are helpfully color-coded blue and pink — back before someone notices and stops the drilling operation on environmental grounds. The big boss (Rob Lowe) is almost cartoonishly bad in a way only Lowe could pull off so affably. He’d twirl a mustache if he had one, while he plans to dump two captured creatures out of sight and poison the lake to kill off any others so he can get at his “ocean of oil”. And of course he has people doing his dirty work for him: a scientist (Thomas Lennon) for the white-collar stuff, and a special-ops type (Holt McCallany) for the messier business.
So it’s down to Tripp, his friend Meredith (Jane Levy) — the “love interest” in that chaste elementary- and middle-school way — and his boss (Danny Glover) to save the creatures. And Creech, of course, who they find can climb up into the empty hood of the pickup Tripp is rebuilding and use his tentacles to spin the axles, turning it into a literal — wait for it — monster truck.
And that’s really the point: a creature-buddy romp like Mac and Me or Little Monsters, designed to appeal to little boys and to challenge them as little as possible. That last point is what separates it from last year’s infinitely more thoughtful Pete’s Dragon, to which it bears an otherwise striking resemblance. Which is not to suggest any wrongdoing on screenwriter Derek Connolly’s part; the shooting on Monster Trucks wrapped in 2014. But it’s fascinating to see how the same bones can be fleshed out into two so radically different movies.
There’s nothing really wrong with a movie like this other than its narrow target audience, and there’s nothing all that interesting to anyone outside it. The characters are all stock tropes; easier for kids to understand but uninteresting to everyone else. The story is coherent enough, but runs straight from point A to point B. The only bumps and twists to be seen are in the landscape that Tripp and Creech bound over. Parents who take their kids will be bored to tears, but for a good chunk of the kids it’ll be the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. And once it hits the home video market and the parents don’t have to spend nearly as much time and money, it stands a real chance to become the sleepover hit of 2020.
Worth It: only for kids.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.