There is nothing pure about Monster Trucks. It is not a work of art born from some noble truth. It is a product – brightly-colored content meant to generate toys. The idea originated around 2013 when Adam Goodman, then president of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group, watched his four-year-old son playing with toy trucks. By 2014, Paramount issued a press release calling their new title Monster Trucks a “movie which has great toyetic appeal.” This unapologetic ploy to sell plastic made for an ignoble start to Monster Trucks, and things wouldn’t improve. The general concept – monster trucks that have real, but friendly, monsters inside them – didn’t inspire much confidence outside of “toyetic appeal,” either.
Release dates were missed (originally set for 2015, it would not open until 2017); test screenings tanked (one unconfirmed report states children shrieked in terror at the sight of the friendly monsters); Goodman was fired from Paramount; and the studio took a loss on the picture, which grossed $64m worldwide on a $125m budget. Critics didn’t help, giving Monster Trucks overwhelmingly mixed-to-negative reviews.
Yet despite its inauspicious pedigree, there’s a warm, silly heart to Monster Trucks. Once you get beyond the blatant consumerism, you find a sweet, endearingly corny tale of a boy and his monster. Boy probably isn’t the right word, though, because, while main character Tripp is supposed to be a high schooler, actor Lucas Till was in his mid-20s while filming. When we first meet him sitting on a school bus with much younger actors, it looks like someone made a mistake.
Tripp wants out of his small North Dakota town, and his only hope for escape is to finish fixing an old junker truck currently void of an engine. He doesn’t have a plan, exactly – just a dream of getting far away, perhaps to some new reality where he’ll no longer look like the world’s oldest high school student. Tripp’s plans are put on hold when he discovers a slimy, squishy, tentacled monster that looks like history’s cutest interpretation of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
This monster and his parents were living in an underground water system, but fracking from an evil oil company accidentally released them. Mommy and daddy monster are captured by the oil company, but the baby monster gets away and soon befriends Tripp, who nicknames the beast Creech.
Monster Trucks lives and dies by Creech, and, for all the talk of the monster horrifying kids at test screenings, he’s pretty damn adorable. Say what you will about Monster Trucks; it does not look like a cheap movie, and Creech’s design – all flailing tentacles, blubbery body, and kind, expressive eyes – works well. Creech feels more like a fully realized character than the majority of the humans. How can you not root for Creech? Sure, he’s kind of gross and he loves to chug motor oil. But he has the personality of a slime-drenched labrador. He’s just happy to be part of your life.
Since Creech is primarily an aquatic monster, he has trouble getting around on land. The solution: Creech slithers into the body of Tripp’s truck, using the vehicle like a super-charged wheelchair. Soon, Creech is taking Tripp on joyrides. Along for those rides is Meredith (Jane Levy), another adult high school student. Bookish and proper, Meredith gets a thrill from running with Tripp and Creech, and Levy nails down her wide-eyed enthusiasm at suddenly breaking some rules.
A wisp of a plot forms: Creech wants to save his imprisoned parents from the oil company; a scientist (Thomas Lennon) working for the company sees the error of his ways and helps; and Creech’s mom and pop soon have their own altered trucks to use as transportation. Gravity-defying chases ensue, with the literal monster trucks flipping and spinning and twirling their way to freedom while nameless oil company goons are run off the road. Are these goons killed in the process? Who’s to say?
Through it all, a lovable sweetness prevails. You catch a glimpse of the toy commercials beneath the movie, yet there’s something undeniably endearing about watching a nice slime-monster ride to freedom, a fang-filled grin on his face. We like Creech, which means by extension we also like Creech’s friends. Are they well-drawn, nuanced characters? Nope. But they’re all working toward a kind goal. And when Creech finds his way home to water at the end and emits a beautiful, ghostly glow once submerged, it’s enchanting. We, as a society, failed Creech. He deserves better.