The premise of Rumble more-or-less guarantees a great movie. The film spotlights the trials and tribulations of a sprightly aspiring monster-coach and her gigantic, clumsy, reptilian trainee. If my decades of movie-watching have taught me anything, it’s that the only thing that Hollywood loves more than films about underdogs are animated movies about monsters.
It’s not only disappointing, then, but also slightly shocking when Rumble ends up being largely uninspiring and low-energy. Directed by animator Hamish Grieve and loosely based on Rob Harrell’s 2013 graphic novel Monster on the Hill, the film takes place in Stoker, a town once widely recognized for its iconic monster-coach duo. That all changed when the pair got lost at sea, but luckily, half-shark/half-octopus/half-I-have-no-idea-what Tentacular (Terry Crews) is here to usher Stoker back into its glory days. Just kidding! After winning a match in town, Tentacular announces his evil scheme to destroy his predecessors’ turf—and turn the town’s stadium into a parking lot. (That is…unless someone can find a monster to replace him in the rink and bring the town’s revenue back before the hydraulic equipment comes into play.) The daughter of Stoker’s beloved coach, whippersnapper Winnie Coyle (Geraldine Viswanathan), steps up to the plate and scouts lazy amateur reptilian wrestler Steve (Will Arnett) as Stoker’s last hope. Hilarity and training montages ensue.
I’ll be the first to admit it: The plot is pretty much the embodiment of formulaic, but that’s not always a bad thing—especially where kids’ movies are concerned. We have our clear-cut villain (who rips off bouts of menacing laughter and has literal tentacles, if anyone was confused) and our easily loveable underdog heroes. There’s a crystal-clear conflict, an even clearer obstacle, and the clearest of all are our character motivations. Steve even says “Daddy issues” out loud.
And, to be honest, none of this is a glaring problem. While in many examples it can serve as a handicap, by no means does this audience-approved formula rule out the possibility of a good film. No, Rumble’s real Achilles’ heel lies in its lack of vitality or stamina. From its first scene, set in a roaring arena with blazing lights and creatively ghastly monster-amalgams, it’s clear that the film has every intention of being an energetic fighting-flick a la The Incredibles or Kung Fu Panda. The music is loud, the characters vibrating with momentum like impassioned atoms. But things never really get off the ground. The action is predictable and the animation far too effortless and smooth to provide any real conflict.
This would be easier to overlook if the characters had just a little more substance to them. Winnie is one of those overzealous young girls that films so badly want you to like and root for. But I can’t help but wish that her goalposts and ambitions were a little more fleshed out, and, ultimately, separate from those of her father. Tentacular never really leaves the arena of predictable villain hood, and we aren’t meant to question if there’s any more depth to him than an evil smirk and an “obliterate all” mentality.
The most interesting character in Rumble is Steve, who, to be fair, is nuanced and well-written. Steve is the son of Rayburn, the revered monster who was lost at sea with Winnie’s dad. When Winnie finds him, he’s partaking in monster-matches at a shady, underground venue where he’s being paid off to lose to other wrestlers. (They could’ve gone further with the Pulp Fiction references, but whatever.) Steve eventually agrees to cooperate with Winnie, but just because he needs money. We then learn he also has some serious Daddy Issues (his words not mine), self-esteem problems and he’s a really good salsa dancer. Arnett breathes a lot of humor and life into him, and as far as underdog reptile characters go, he’s one of my favorites (right behind Underdog in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
Rumble’s flaws wouldn’t be so apparent were it not for its exceptional animation. In a movie that features both humans and monsters, it is important to highlight the size disparities in as many ways as possible. The film does just that. When one monster throws another to the ground, you see its body shake, and you can feel its weight and density—something facilitated greatly by nuanced sound design. The characters are also almost excessively expressive, which helps bring humanity to the non-humans of the movie.
It is not fair to assume that every film is going to stray from the beaten path; many are much better off if they don’t. What should be a standard, though, is that a film’s stakes be quantitative, and if it’s about giant mutant monsters engaging in a succession of epic, high-stakes brawls, it should be at least fun to watch.
Director: Hamish Grieve
Writers: Hamish Grieve, Matt Lieberman
Stars: Will Arnett, Terry Crews, Geraldine Viswanathan, Joe “Roman Reigns” Anoa’i, Tony Danza, Becky Lynch, Susan Kelechi Watson, Stephen A. Smith, Jimmy Tarto, Ben Schwartz
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.