In Mail Order Monster, little Sam Pepper (likable and precocious Madison Horcher) is not coping with her mother’s tragic death. Sick of being bullied at school and not having friends, she orders a robot from an ad on the back of one of her comics. She assembles it, with no luck at first, before a lightning strike brings the creature to life. Naming it MOM, she befriends it and runs away from home.
The story plays out like a feature-length R.L. Stine creation with a dash of Spielberg or JJ Abrams. A kid is swept up by an oddball situation magnified by family drama and strained relationships. It isn’t Dead Poets levels of bleakness, but doesn’t shy away from heavy material.
It’s not shy about experimentation either. Comic book illustrations are used to help tell the story and they don’t get in the way. Far from cumbersome, they are an enhancement of the storytelling that never feels desperate or like they’re padding the run time. They’re actually allowed to get away with setups (e.g., the death of Sam’s mom) and a climax budget restraints would hamstring.
Mail Order Monster is comparable in tone and theme to another coming-of-age story from this year, I Kill Giants. Both movies cover similar subject matter juxtaposed with tropes of children’s fantasy and graphic novels. Adolescents use escapism to deal with grief and anguish; and they have the ability to mystically go beyond their physical means to fight gargantuan odds or take the power back in their lives. Sam and giant-killer Barbara would probably hang out.
Although kid-friendly, the monster, or robot design, is a little off-putting. It’s a guy in a suit that looks like Tonka trucks meet Erector Set, but the voice might be enough to give a tot nightmares, so be a little wary watching it with your kids.
Mail Order Monster is worth a portion of your time. It’s a simple film that makes the most out of what it has without forgetting character growth, good performances, or a happy ending. It balances human drama with enough humor and keeps up the pace while holding interest sufficiently. Your kids, especially if you have girls, will like seeing a poised character their age who’s sharp and resourceful plus vulnerable and sympathetic. She can create life too, so there’s that.