Little Monsters isn’t a reboot of the 1989 Fred Savage / Howie Mandel classic where jokster monsters pissed in bottles or a documentary about Lady Gaga groupies (shudder). No, this film is actually a blend of 2016’s The Girl With all the Gifts, 1985’s Fortress, 1998’s Life is Beautiful and 2006’s Black Sheep squeezed inside a smart and loving tribute to 2003’s Shaun of the Dead. Listen closely and it’s also a musical, sort of, one that practically begs the audience to ride its vibe. That’s quite the genre diversity, so what could this film possibly have in common with them?
Easy: smart horror-comedy starring saintly Oscar-winners helping shield kids from trauma and peril. And monsters! In this case the monsters are zombies who love tasty sheep and human flesh. You also get to watch an Academy Award winner decapitate zombies with a shovel and play the ukulele. Not since Nicolas Cage’s post-Leaving Las Vegas Oscar-accredited career have we seen an Academy winner so fully embraced the brighter side of schlock than Lupita does here.
Short-sighted critics will say she’s “too good” for a movie like this, but as Cage has demonstrated after a quarter century of questionable roles it’s entirely possible to build a respectable career based on sheer madness and personality; any project that keeps Nyong’o in front of the camera – and clearly having a ball – is worth our attention.
Dave (Alexander England) is a loser, desperately trying to cling to spent dreams about rockstar fame and fortune that went nowhere and recently booted from his apartment by his ex-girlfriend. He’s now living with his older sister and is immediately idolized by his Darth Vader-loving nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca), a precocious preteen whose cuteness will surely come into play later in the plot.
Where he meets Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), a vision in yellow who loves her job and the kids she teaches. Naturally, Dave is immediately hot for teacher and will do anything to get a little closer to her – including volunteering to help watch the youngsters on a field trip to a local farm. Once there, they run into Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), an absurd kids show host who sings the most monotonous ditty you’ve ever heard – and considering the movie prominently features Taylor Swift tunes, that’s saying a lot. Gross and fake as Miss Caroline is rainbows and sunshine, Gad’s McGiggle may be the film’s real monster.
With the sex comedy setup and crude humor Little Monsters could’ve easily settled in and become your generic rom-com, but thank heavens that’s not the case. Cue secret military experiments gone awry and it’s not long before the farm is invaded by the living dead hungry for sheep and people. Without thinking, Miss Caroline transforms from caring teacher into mother hen for her charges, utilizing every tool in the teacher’s playbook to convince them the chaos is actually part of a game and the bloodshed is really just tasty strawberry jam.
Watching Miss Caroline take control with such a cool head under impossible circumstances becomes a revelation to Dave as the woman he once thought of as just another score becomes a maternal badass. The two slowly come to trust and understand each other while protecting the kiddos from the horrors outside in scenes that would have been interminable filler in a lesser movie, yet really stand out here. It’s not like they can count on help from Teddy McGiggle, the only other adult, whose plastic veneer hides an even more revolting reality (no spoilers) that will surely make every parent who’s endured the brain rot of kiddy music cheer in the final scenes.
Let’s talk about Lupita Nyong’o for a moment, because she’s not only the star but somehow manages to turn in an iconic performance, both physically and emotionally, as the yellow dress-clad, ukulele-playing teacher with a heart of gold (and hidden past, of course). She’s criminally gorgeous, of course, but ever since winning Oscar gold for 12 Years a Slave her career has mostly been voicing CG animals and space creatures – or accompanying CG animals and creatures in Black Panther. This year’s Twilight Zone-ripped Us gave audiences a chance to see her dazzle in dual roles, but Little Monsters finally lets her truly sing – literally – as she belts out everything from Taylor Swift to Sesame Street songs with her trusty ukulele.
As great as Nyong’o is, Alexander England gives an equally standout performance as the slacker we see grow from loser into a decent human being. England also makes a better “Slob Thor” than Hemsworth did in Avengers: Endgame and his chemistry with Nyong’o – and the kids – feels exactly right, He’s also a natural comedian with on point timing and real warmth when necessary. Watching his try to survive this mini-apocalypse is compelling and like Hemsworth’s breakthrough cameo as Captain Kirk’s doomed dad in 2009’s Star Trek reboot, this could be England’s breakout role.
Australian director Abe Forsythe is new to me but from what I hear he’s a little controversial so that’s a bonus. Honestly, there’s nothing extraordinary in the camerawork, cinematography or even in how the zombie battles are staged – the actual carnage is relatively tame, though I’ll admit the makeup work isn’t too shabby. I was actually surprised that so many critical kills and chomping were left offscreen – almost as if Forsythe’s crew were channeling Miss Caroline and trying to protect audiences from watching those intestines and brain matter fly. At least there are zombie kids, always a plus, and we get to see these real “little monsters” get dispatched as gruesomely as the adults. Kudos for that!
The most incredible thing about this movie is how slyly it evolves from raunchy sexy comedy into a genuinely sweet, heartwarming story of maturity – the zombies themselves becoming almost secondary threats. The hardest aspect to nail down in genre filmmaking isn’t gore, comedy or even the plot – it’s sincerity, which costs nothing and means everything. Abe Forsythe, Nyong’o and England have sincerity in droves and that’s what elevates Little Monsters into that rare zombie rom-com that demonstrates how the power of music – and shovels – are all you need to redeem the damned from bachelorhood – and becoming lunch. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it sure is a lot of fun.