“Not so tough now are you, land-squid?”
At long last, someone has combined H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos with the Transformers franchise. The result is Monster Trucks, a silly but surprisingly enjoyable piece of family fluff that gets by with its affable spirit. There’s a lot of ironic detachment regarding this admittedly goofy premise: monster trucks that are literally trucks powered by monsters! No one will ever accuse this film of being in the same category as the thoughtful, geared-towards-all-ages fare that Pixar produces. But on its own merit, Monster Trucks is a lot of fun, and even charming at times. I’d rather watch a franchise built around this film than Transformers and The Fast and The Furious combined.
Lucas Till is Tripp, a full grown man who is also a high school student. Tripp is adept around cars and also kind of a jerk to everyone who tries to be nice to him, including his mom (Amy Ryan, in another thankless Amy Ryan role), his mom’s boyfriend (Barry Pepper), some lonely kid who just wants to hang out with him (Tucker Albrizzi), and his biology tutor (Jane Levy) who has a crush on him. Tripp lives in a town ruined (and run) by evil, leather jacket-wearing oilman Tenneson (Rob Lowe), and the adult boy dreams of fixing up an old truck so he can hit the road and never look back.
While digging a new oil well, Tenneson’s crew accidentally drills too deep and unleashes three large Lovecraftian monsters, all slimy bodies and flailing tentacles. Two are captured, but one escapes and slithers its way to the junkyard where Tripp works for the grizzled Mr. Weathers (Danny Glover). Late one night Tripp finds the monster drinking oil, and since Tripp is kind of an asshole, his first instinct is to crush the beast in the car compactor. But the monster turns out to be kind of cute (when it’s not bearing a mouth full of fangs), and Tripp and the beast (dubbed Creech) become buds. Creech, as it turns out, is pretty great at being a living car motor, climbing into the frame of Tripp’s junker truck and making it ride like the wind. That comes in handy, because muscle-bound thugs who work for Tenneson are looking to capture and kill Creech (boo, hiss!).
Along the way, Tripp and Creech scoop Meredith (Levy) up into their orbit, and other than the design of the truly adorable/weird Creech, Levy is the film’s secret weapon. Meredith is as underwritten as the standard Hero’s Girlfriend character can get in a film like this, but Levy brings an irresistible charm to the role, like in a scene where she mistakenly thinks she just helped Tripp steal a truck and a flash of devil-may-care excitement crosses her face, or when she enthusiastically asks Tripp, “Do you watch NatGeo?!”
Monster Trucks unfolds exactly the way you expect it to, borrowing from the standard E.T. playbook: Tripp and Meredith have to help Creech reunite with his kin and get back home, pursued the whole way by nameless baddies. They find an unlikely ally in a scientist (played by Thomas Lennon) who works for Tenneson, and the climax of the film revolves around Tripp and the gang retrofitting more trucks to house more cuddly Cthulhu’s for a race against the clock.
The script (by Derek Connolly, with story credits attributed to three other writers, because it takes a lot of people to come up with an idea like this) is paper-thin, as are the bulk of the characters, save for maybe Frank Whaley as Tripp’s morally bankrupt father, living out his sad existence in a dingy trailer where he microwaves hot wings. But gosh darn it, I can’t besmirch Monster Trucks much. It’s never dull, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies, and there’s a goofball charm in watching Creech and company defy gravity as they outrun their enemies. There’s also something gloriously twisted about a kid’s movie that dares to spray one of its villains with a hell of a lot of poison and never bother to tell the audience if he survived or not. There are plenty more intellectually rewarding family films out there, but for what it’s worth, Monster Trucks is a fun ride.