A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Imagine rummaging around a flea market and finding a slightly worn-out VHS tape of one of those Amblin kid wish-fulfillment adventures from the ‘80s and ‘90s—“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Gremlins,” “The Goonies,” “Batteries Not Included” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy. You know, the type of fantasy where the youngsters discover that something weird and wonderful lurks in their midst while the preoccupied adults have no clue what is going on.
That is the way it often feels like to watch “Monster Trucks”—an attempt to recapture this old style of storytelling, now boosted by 21st-century special effects—but without having to excavate that dusty VCR from the basement. This first live-action effort from animation director Chris Wedge, whose Blue Sky Studios are behind the “Ice Age” franchise, arrives in theaters with a somewhat battered reputation after Paramount delayed its release several times and then took $115 million write-down against expected losses on the estimated $125 million family film. Not exactly a vote of confidence.
And yet a scrappy underdog status might actually benefit this vintage vehicle about small-town truck-obsessed high-school senior Tripp (Lucas Till, Havok in the “X-Men” series whose mechanical ingenuity shown in the recent “MacGyver” TV reboot comes in handy here), class brain Meredith (Jane Levy of “Don’t Breathe” and sitcom “Suburgatory”) who harbors a crush on him and an oil-guzzling, octopus-like creature that acts like a super-charged engine under the hood of his pickup built from spare parts. “Monster Trucks” (yes, a pun) never approaches the soaring moon-glow heights of "E.T."’s Elliott and his adorable alien buddy. And, based on the early word, I came into it with fairly low-octane expectations. But at least it never made me want to sink ever deeper in my seat with despair at every plot turn as some flat-out lemons do.
The main problem of “Monster Trucks” is how content it is to take its sweet time before shifting into high-action gear, including some not-bad vehicle stunts that feature the sight of a 4X4 somehow clamoring up the side of a building and speeding across rooftops, as it engages in pokey exposition and introduces numerous characters. We meet the shady oil company boss (a duly slick Rob Lowe) who badgers a corporate scientist (Thomas Lennon, amusingly underplaying his part) into giving his approval to drilling in a lake, even though there are signs that a thriving ecosystem exists down there that might get harmed. As a result, a fiery explosion releases a squishy aquatic beast with long tentacles, shark-like teeth and a Flipper-like smile that finds its way to the local junkyard run by a kindly Danny Glover that serves as Tripp’s refuge.