Video On Demand: Mail Order Monster (2018) - Reviewed

Mail Order Monster is a strange hybrid. It is ostensibly a family friendly fantasy adventure about a lonely young girl who sees an ad for the titular creature in the back of a comic book and orders it to help her deal with bullies. In reality, it is about a girl who lost her mother in a tragic accident several years earlier and is struggling to accept her father’s desire to move on. That part of the story works fairly well, but the monster seems like it is from a different movie. It has little to do with the main plotline, then gets in the way at the end when the screenplay is trying to resolve itself. 

The protagonist, Samantha, has recognizable problems, not melodramatic movie troubles. Her relationship with her father and reaction to his girlfriend is believable. A lot of time is spent setting up her world. Then the monster shows up. It makes sense from a character perspective: Sam loves comic books and thinks that maybe this could be her superhero. It is a cute concept, but Mail Order Monster is not actually about it. It has no idea how to integrate that into its larger story. The end result, a family drama occasionally invaded by a goofy sci-fi adventure, is too awkward to be successful.

That is unfortunate because it does feel like real thought was put into every character except for the title one. The monster is a deus ex machina dropped into a plot that does not need it. That creates a disconnect in terms of tone. This probably would not have bothered me so much if I was not enjoying the first half hour or so before the monster appears. The movie is mostly serious and sweet, so Sam sneaking around with a bizarre looking robot is too odd for the main plotline to handle. It also builds to an ending that disregards all the issues that were considered throughout in favor of some action that does not really fit.

That is the bad. The good is in the sensitive treatment of the characters and the pleasantly unforced performances of the actors playing them. Samantha is a girl with understandable stresses, instead of a “movie-cute” miniature adult. She is not condescended to by the adults in the story or the filmmakers. Madison Horcher plays the role like a real kid, which makes Sam pretty endearing. As her father, Josh Hopkins is saddled with a couple of uncharacteristic moments of ignorance, but for the most part he is loving and sympathetic. The girlfriend, played by Charisma Carpenter of Buffy and Angel fame, is not the child-hating jerk this character is usually turned into. She truly cares for Sam, realizes the situation she is coming into and wants to make it work. There is a lot of story right there and Mail Order Monster begins telling it until its high-concept gets in the way.

This is a rare instance where the thing that allows a movie to stand out is the same thing that holds it back. It feels like two very different movies fighting for space. Neither of them ever really wins. That is a shame since one of those is actually engaging while the other is not. The gimmick is probably why this got made, in which case they did too good of a job fleshing out the other characters. The biggest problem with Mail Order Monster is the monster never seems necessary to the story it is telling.

--Ben Pivoz