What if massive monster battles weren’t apocalyptic orgies of destruction, like in the world of Godzilla Vs. Kong, and instead became a source of delight and fierce pride, like in the audience of Godzilla Vs. Kong? That’s the question behind Rumble, a new animated feature from Reel FX, which previously made the inventive Book Of Life and the inauspicious Free Birds. Rumble’s vaguely futuristic alternate world where titans and kaiju of old have evolved into sports franchises represents a bold gambit for a studio without a big brand name—and a savvy burst of imagination that the filmmakers, including director/co-writer and DreamWorks vet Hamish Grieve, have trouble following up.
That’s because the endearingly bizarre rules and questions of this world where gigantic talking monsters co-exist with humans (where do the monsters actually live?!) must compete with more personal, less interesting backstory. Almost all of the latter involves daddy issues; it’s apparently never too early to prompt 8-year-old wrestling fans to consider whether they’re living up to the reputations of their fathers (always their fathers). Winnie McEvoy (Geraldine Viswanathan from Blockers and Bad Education) is the teenage daughter of a storied monster trainer who brought glory to their hometown of Stoker through his coaching of Rayburn (Charles Barkley). Now both of these icons are gone, and Stoker’s latest champion, Tentacular (Terry Crews), is pulling a LeBron and departing Stoker for more moneyed pastures.
This endangers Stoker’s fancy monster-fighting stadium, which put the city in an enormous amount of debt—a situation that is positioned not as a cautionary tale about the boondoggle indulgences of stadium construction but rather the folksy equivalent of banding together to saving a beloved old theatre or clock tower. Burning with misdirected economic anxiety, Winnie sets off to bring a new one-monster franchise to Stoker. She finds Steve (Will Arnett), a hapless loser paid to throw fights—who also happens to be the son of the beloved Rayburn. Eventually, Winnie learns that Steve’s true passion is for dance, not fighting, and she coaches him to incorporate his sophisticated footwork into wrestling matches.
This all sounds serviceable enough to fuel a movie about an underdog kaiju and his human buddy rising to the top, yet it gets muddled in a daisy chain of nonsensical motivations. Steve loves dancing, not fighting. But he presses forward with his fighting career in an attempt to live up to his father’s name. But he doesn’t use his father’s name, because he wants to establish himself on his own. But the career he establishes involves being paid to lose, and he’s reluctant to take Winnie’s offer. So what is he establishing again, and why? Despite being produced by the WWE, Rumble is a wrestling picture for children that feels profoundly confused about why, how, or if anyone enjoys wrestling.
It is rare to see a big-studio cartoon where the settings are economically ravaged or, in the case of the town Winnie visits to find Steve, downright seedy. After around half an hour, though, the local color washes away, most of the jokes dry out, and the movie proceeds with a rhythm so herky-jerky and haphazard that not even so much as a training montage can be completed with baseline coherence. The delightful monster designs paraded around at first—like King Gorge, a gigantic bulldog affixed with steer-like horns and a surly expression—give way to more time with Steve, who pretty much just looks like a guy. There’s liveliness in the conception of Rumble, knocked around and out by the demands of formulas no one has bothered to figure out.