The transition from animation to live action is difficult for directors. Ask Andrew Stanton, whose John Carter fizzled at take-off stage in 2012 and Brad Bird, whose Tomorrowland performed below expectations in 2015. The latest to try is Chris Wedge, one of the founders of Blue Sky Animation, whose work includes Ice Age, Robots and Epic.
The release of Monster Trucks, his film for Nickelodeon Studios and Paramount Pictures, was postponed twice, first from Christmas 2015 to 2016 and then will finally be screened in US cinemas on 13 January 2017, a weekend usually dominated by wide releases of Oscar-nominated fare or the latest Kevin Hart comedy. For comparison, The Revenant, Ride Along 2 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens were the big winners on the weekend 15 to 17 January 2016, with family animation Norm of the North scoring a lowly $6 million opening. Expect Monster Trucks to do the same up against Hidden Figures and Patriots Day.
Pitched somewhere between a kids movie and teen fare, Monster Trucks aims squarely for Middle America with its lush green opening shots and North Dakota setting – not to mention its ethnically not diverse cast, headed by camera friendly Lucas Till and Jane Levy, who is turning herself into this decade’s scream queen with the 2013 remake of Evil Dead and her follow-up, Don’t Breathe, a home invasion movie with a twist. Way down the cast list is Danny Glover, who plays a scrap merchant confined to a wheelchair – he’s just the sort of unthreatening African-American the filmmakers imagine Middle America will be comfortable with.
We are placed in E.T. territory early on in Monster Trucks, when a multi-tentacled sea creature living in a pocket of water deep below the earth is separated from its parents after an intrusive oil drill tears into its habitat. Whilst mom and pop are captured by the unscrupulous oil company, Terravex, young Creech hightails it to a vehicle repair workshop where loner teen Tripp (Till) discovers it behind some oil barrels.
Creech is being hunted down by the Keys equivalent, a private security guy, Burke (Holt McCallany) who is acting for Terravex. Creech discovers a liking for paddling along on four wheels and then installing his squid-like body over the spindles of a truck and making it go. The science of Monster Trucks isn’t just contrived – it’s bonkers. You think with the title it would have been easier to make the trucks robotic, but Transformers got there first.
Applying animation logic to a live action scenario is a risky endeavor. Wedge doesn’t pull it off. I spent 90% of the ‘Monster Truck’ scenes worrying that Creech would get friction burns. I also kept expecting Tripp to say ‘put a little backbone’ into it, forgetting that squids lack vertebrae, and are in fact cephalopods. Tripp and Creech go on the run with Meredith (Levy), who is his science tutor – self-appointed – and discover that Terravex has nasty plans for Creech’s habitat.
Like much of Wedge’s animation work, Monster Trucks has an ecological subtext, though it is stretched by Creech living off oil. As we know from spills, oil is extremely damaging to marine life as well as coastal habitats. There is something ‘post truth’ about depicting a species that could consume oil without difficulty, though we learn for this reason that Creech ‘fears fire’. How would it know?
Yet you can see why Wedge might have thought this would be a great idea for a live action film. Animation can do many things: pluck heart strings and make us laugh. But they cannot create a sense of real danger and exhilaration. Towards the end of the film, in a chase scene, the ‘Monster Truck’ hurtles down a mountain and you feel the perilous vertical. This sequence isn’t worth the price of admission, but captures the excitement that fired Wedge to make the movie.
Monster Trucks takes other risks too, by depicting Tripp’s biological father (Frank Whaley) as a poor role model, forcing Tripp to reevaluate his mom’s sheriff boyfriend (Barry Pepper). Given the film’s racial politics, it is perhaps no surprise that law enforcement is broadly celebrated – the film is very far from 1970s counter-culture.
Performance captured and forced to surrender
Why would an actress of the calibre of Amy Ryan (playing Tripp’s mom) sign up for this nonsense? The dearth of quality roles for Oscar-nominated older actresses has been much remarked upon. The quality cast, including Thomas Lennon as a comedy scientist – given the film’s attitude to cephalopods, did we expect anything else – suggests a lack of faith in the computer-generated imagery. Indeed, Creech is decidedly unlovable, lacking a personality. One ‘joke’ has it hyped up on gasoline because, of course, it is full of chemicals.
Worth the price of admission
Monster Trucks is such an odd spectacle that I would recommend it to film students interested in what happens when ‘high concept’ falls flat. It works best in the chase sequence in which the truck hides in an alley above a police car and races across roofs. Till, who featured in X Men: First Class as Havok and the reboot of the TV series MacGyver, radiates teen appeal; with a different agent he might land a role in the next Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
The likable Levy has portrayed probably her last college student; I think she should probably go for Emma Stone-type roles. Pretty much every character serves a plot point, though screenwriter Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed) does unremarkable work. The derivative score, complete with montage songs, illustrates a production line aesthetic. The ending I wanted was the ‘Monster Trucks’ finding themselves in the middle of a rally, using their tentacles to swing vehicles around in a truly monstrous way. But that isn’t part of the E.T. template.
At least part of the problem with Monster Trucks should fall to producer Mary Parent, who last year narrowly lost out on an Oscar for The Revenant to Spotlight. Her dubious taste will next be experienced in the spring in the form of Same Kind of Different As Me, in which a white middle class couple (Greg Kinnear, Renee Zellweger) are taught wisdom by a homeless African American (Djimon Hounsou). The trailer reviews have been harsh.
Has there ever seen a good live action movie made by an animation director? Post your suggestions.
Monster Trucks opens in U.S. theaters on January 13. It opened on December 26, 2016 in the U.K. Find international release dates here.