When Paramount unveiled the first trailer for “Monster Trucks”–a movie that is literally about monsters inside oversized trucks–the Internet rejoiced with teeth bared. Mockery and jeering were unleashed so vicious and vociferous that months ahead of its release, the studio braced for the family-friendly adventure to bomb spectacularly. But the Internet was wrong. It was smug and quick to judge, deriding the film — admittedly one with a ridiculous premise actually dreamed up by a four-year-old — for daring to be different.
Yet, “Monster Trucks” is a movie the Internet should love. Imaginative and wonderful, it pays unexpected homage to the gloriously odd kids’ movies of the 1990s. Think about the films children grew up loving in that era. Their premises were gleefully stupid. “Encino Man” was about a caveman attending a California high school. “Free Willy” followed a lonely boy as he befriends then frees a killer whale. And “Surf Ninjas” — well, you get the picture. These movies were not made to impress critics, but to kick the imaginations of children into giddy overdrive. And we ate them up for all their strangeness and zeal. “Monster Trucks” doesn’t traffic in the overt nostalgia of allusion shots, dialogue parodies, or Easter Egg-laced set design. Instead, it brilliantly resurrects the sincerity and joy of those movies, never apologizing for its ludicrous premise.
A loner with a love of cars, Tripp (Lucas Till) desperately desires adventure that he fears his small oil town can’t offer. So, he turns up his nose at the attempted parenting by his stern sheriff stepdad (Barry Pepper in a role that seems written for Kevin Bacon), and rebuffs the awkward advances of brainy Meredith (Jane Levy), who favors flashcards over flirting. Yet adventure emerges right under Tripp’s nose when an environment-destroying oil exec (Rob Lowe in a cartoonish “Southern” accent) drills into an underground lake, unleashing an undiscovered species of bioluminescent octopi onto the sleepy town, and offering our teen hero a chance to save the day.
Fate brings a lonely boy and a lost monster together. But it’s Tripp’s mechanical ingenuity that leads to the monster meeting truck. As silly as this plotline is, screenwriter Derek Connolly (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) musters up some solid story logic to work out the details of how a hyper-intelligent octopus can operate a monster truck. Then we’re off and running on a quest to get the subterranean sea creature–named Creech–back home, while not only avoiding the oil baron’s murderous enforcer (Holt McCallany), but also thwarting the evil plan to preserve an oil empire by committing monster genocide.
Despite the life-or-death stakes, this is a funky feel-good movie studded with physical comedy from a surprisingly cute creature, and genuinely exhilarating car chase scenes that employ the eponymous monster trucks with whimsy and verve. There’s shades of “Fast and the Furious” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” as cars flip, tumble down mountains, and even leap across rooftops, but all with the casualty buffer of a kids movie. (“I hope they were wearing seatbelts!”)
And the cast gets it. Levy ditches the sarcasm of “Suburgatory” and the darkness of “Evil Dead” to bring lightness, life and wit to her competent and confident biology geek. Pepper offers a bit of zing and a dash of step-fatherly love. Lowe’s accent is all over the place, but his mugging is on point and hilarious. Danny Glover pops in to add a sprinkle of old-timer charm. And the ever-funny Thomas Lennon relishes every moment playing a scientist torn between the company line and these clever, cuddly creatures. When his flustered rebel gets to drive a “monster truck,” his enthusiasm was so authentic and contagious that the audience cheered. Okay, that was me. I cheered. But I wasn’t alone.
Most crucially, Till proves to be “Monster Trucks” pitch-perfect leading man, nailing the jaunty tone and committing to the clowning with every cell of his being. Whether taking goofy selfies with Creech, standing up against the greedy baddies or taking a moment to cry over his personal losses while receiving a supportive shoulder pat from a glistening tentacle, Till is vibrant and warmly mesmerizing in a way reminiscent of a young Brendan Fraser. His sincerity is absolute, and encourages grown-up moviegoers to drop their tragically hip façade of snark, and revel in a world that could be full of monster trucks, Encino men, and surf ninjas.
I confess: I’d expected “Monster Ttrucks” to crash and burn in execution. But in the face of Till’s exuberance, Levy’s earnestness, and director Chris Wedge’s resoluteness to wonder, I was easily won over. I laughed. I teared up, and was so caught up in the action that I yelped loudly with genuine alarm as the Creech and company bounded toward a speeding train! Just like that, I was a kid (of the ’90s) again.
Unrepentantly absurd and unstoppably fun, “Monster Trucks” is exactly the kind of kids’ movie I want to see from studios. It’s an exciting escapist adventure that’ll entertain the whole family, without talking down to kids or pandering to parents with pop culture references. It’s original. It’s risky. And it deserves better than the treatment the Internet dumped on this strange but wondrous creature feature.
“Monster Trucks” opens January 13th.