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‘Monster Trucks’ review: ‘Transformers’ wannabe feels like made-for-video kiddie fare

A teenager (Lucas Till) discovers a mysterious creature who can help his truck do amazing things. (Credit: UK Paramount Pictures)

PLOT A high-school boy discovers a new life form that can power his truck.

CAST Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Rob Lowe

RATED PG (mild action)

LENGTH 1:44

BOTTOM LINE Wants to be “Transformers” but feels more like made-for-video kiddie fare. Tough going if you’re older than 9.

How bad is “Monster Trucks”? Conceived quite literally by a 4-year-old — the son of former Paramount Pictures president Adam Goodman — the movie is held in such low esteem that the studio reportedly took a $115 million write-down on it before its release. Its arrival midway through January, always a bleak movie month, suggests Paramount would rather forget it ever brought it up.

For all that, “Monster Trucks” isn’t a complete fiasco. If you didn’t know what it cost, you wouldn’t rate it much worse than most of the kiddie stuff listed under the “suggestions” menu on your favorite streaming platform. “Monster Trucks” is the kind of junk movie desperate parents frequently turn to in order to get a couple hours’ peace.

It’s directed by Chris Wedge, whose animated “Ice Age” movies have been serving that same function for years. “Monster Trucks” stars Lucas Till (of CBS’ “MacGyver” reboot) as Tripp, a high schooler in North Dakota who wants only one thing. No, not a girlfriend, as his moony classmate Meredith (Jane Levy) knows too well, but an engine for his truck. What Tripp doesn’t know is that the Terravex oil company has just drilled into an underground ecosystem, releasing a strange life form that guzzles oil and has the ability to spin an axle at high speed.

When boy meets creature — nicknamed “Creech” — it’s a match made in heaven. Creech, a CGI character who probably guzzled most of the movie’s cash, too, is an unlovely octopus-manatee hybrid with floppy tentacles and spiny teeth, but when Tripp discovers the big fella is also a living engine, they’re off to the races. Well, figuratively speaking; one of this movie’s many missed opportunities is that Tripp and Creech never take to a track to strut their stuff. Instead, they spend their time eluding Terravex bad guys and re-enacting the bicycle scene from “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”

Till and Levy look way too old to be teenagers (they’re in their mid-20s), yet their roles seem written for children. They’re supported by several fine but wasted actors, among them Amy Ryan as Tripp’s mom, Thomas Lennon as a knock-kneed scientist, Rob Lowe as a ruthless oil baron and Barry Pepper as the local sheriff. The simple-minded script, written by four grown adults, makes them all seem like amateurs. That said, my 9-year-old loved “Monster Trucks,” so maybe there’s hope for this movie yet.

Four more to go truckin’ with

“Monster Trucks” rolls into theaters Friday, but when it comes to movies about truckers and trucking, these four really shifted the action into high gear.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) — Life is a highway — and a bumpy one at that — for trucker siblings George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in Raoul Walsh’s rough-and-tumble drama. The standout is Ida Lupino as a trucking magnate’s wife consumed by passion for Raft.

DUEL (1971) — One of Steven Spielberg’s earliest directing gigs was this thriller about a monster tractor trailer that’s hot on the bumper of a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver). This nail-biter premiered as an ABC “Movie of the Week” but was expanded and released as a feature film in Europe.

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) — Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed star as truckers — traveling with a basset hound named Fred — who encounter a runaway bride (Sally Field), the blustery sheriff (Jackie Gleason) whose son she jilted and numerous car crashes while transporting beer across state lines.

CONVOY (1978) — Sam Peckinpah directed this actioner about a trucker (Kris Kristofferson) and his cronies who set out to stop a corrupt sheriff (Ernest Borgnine) eager to impound their rigs. Also along for the ride is Ali MacGraw as a photographer Kristofferson picks up.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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