I’ll admit it: I originally thought Hulu’s original movie Little Monsters was going to be a remake of the 1989 cult classic of the same name about wacky monsters who live under the bed starring Fred Savage and Howie Mandel. It’s not. And I’m willing to look past my disappointment upon learning this, mostly because this zombie-comedy (zomedy?) hits all the right marks.
Our protagonist, Dave (Alexander England), is constantly fighting with his girlfriend. She wants to get married and have kids, but he doesn’t. Mostly, he fears being a bad father since his own dad walked out on him and his family when he was young. Dave and his girlfriend end up breaking up and he goes to live with his older sister, Tess (Kat Stewart), and her 5-year-old son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca).
Dave loves his nephew, but just simply doesn’t understand kids. He lets the kindergartner play violent zombie video games and teaches him about douchebags and curse words. But if he’s going to be living with his sister, he has to help her out, starting by taking Felix to school, which he doesn’t mind because he’s totally smitten by Felix’s teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). So much so that he volunteers to be the only parent chaperone on the class’s field trip to Pleasant Valley Farm, a petting zoo/miniature golf course, accompanying Miss Caroline and some dozen five-year-olds.
During the trip, Dave discovers that Miss Caroline is already engaged, spoiling his mood. The day goes from bad to much, much worse when the US testing facility next door accidentally unleashes hundreds of zombies, which end up running (or walking) amuck at the petting zoo. Now Miss Caroline and Dave must do everything in their power to protect the kids as they’ve barricaded themselves in the farm’s welcome center/gift shop.
The zombies, themselves, are the cherry on top of this movie, and actually help add to the zany tone. Often in zombie movies – especially one with such a high concept – the creatures are lazily thrown in as a formality. But in Little Monsters the creative cast of zombies are visually unique and possess memorable traits, with many having a distinct style or quirk.
Josh Gad plays Teddy McGiggle, an over-eccentric Mr. Rogers-type who the kids all worship. He also happens to be at Pleasant Valley that same day and ends up locked inside the gift shop with the kids. However, he turns out to be a very mean person and doesn’t actually care about the children, unlike the character he plays on TV. Gad’s character is initially thought to only serve as an antagonistic presence, but eventually his disingenuous desire to change his ways provides an excellent counterpoint to Dave’s sincere goal to do the same.
Little Monsters speaks on what motivates us to better ourselves, and if that initial and, often times, selfish motivation can transform into something genuine and earnest. Miss Caroline exemplifies that earnestness, while Dave is stuck in the self-centered stage. He has a lot of self-pity, constantly living in the past, telling people he’s in a band, when in reality his band broke up years ago. He’s lost in his life and his career, resorting to busking on street corners.
The film’s brilliant hook juxtaposes the innocence of children with the dark “reality” of flesh eating zombies. Little Monsters tells a truly heartwarming story amidst vulgar surroundings – not the least of which are the undead themselves. Dave is very crude, and has little self-awareness when doing so.
Writer/director Abe Forsythe perfectly manages the conflicting tones of the film without making us think too hard about the unusual genre hybrid. He never lets the variety of character traits get in the way of the uniformity of his comedic style, which can often be the case in a film that tries to balance humor and sentiment…and gore.
Forsythe also brings the best out of his characters and their dynamics with one another. Despite Dave and Miss Caroline’s late-blooming relationship, and their respective just-average chemistry, it’s never the problem it would be in a lesser, less engaging movie. Mostly because the story, its themes, and its characters are just too irresistible.
As much as Dave is our main protagonist, the movie is just as much about Miss Caroline, the epitome of a dedicated teacher who loves her students more than anything. She takes her job seriously and is driven to get her children out of their dire situation. La Torraca is absolutely adorable as young Felix and truly drives the emotional stakes, pulling the best out of Dave, who we never believed would come so far in such a short time.
Little Monsters will be sure to make you feel emotions you never thought possible in a movie about the walking dead (did a zombie movie just make me cry?), the least of which is the genuine warmth for these characters and their well-being. Credit goes to Forsythe and his talented cast of adults and young kindergartners alike, not to mention a witty script that never tries too hard with its humor, managing to pack maximum entertainment into every bite. As an aside, while this new movie commits more to its horror identity than 1989’s Little Monsters, any zombie in this one is much less scary than Howie Mandel in hideous monster makeup.