Little Monsters, written and directed by Abe Forsythe, could be mistaken for a script left in a desk drawer for 10 years. Like a combination of 2009’s Zombieland and 2008’s Role Models, Little Monsters tries to create something that is funny, gross, but also touching. Unfortunately, its odd mishmash of stale genre elements drags it down. Although Lupita Nyong’o’s effortlessly wonderful performance is a good enough reason to sit through the film’s forced humor.
Washed-up musician and manchild Dave (Alexander England) is in a rut. After a messy breakup, he finds himself crashing on his sister Sara’s (Nadia Townsend) couch. The only pleasure he seems to find is spending quality time with his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) and being awe-struck by his nephew’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). Thinking he might be able to get closer to Caroline, Dave offers to chaperone Felix’s class on a field trip to a petting zoo. They find more than baby animals, though, when zombies break out of a nearby military base. Miss Caroline, armed with a ukulele and limitless optimism, must protect her flock of children by any means necessary.
Lupita Nyong’o proves in Little Monsters that she can single-handedly make anything enjoyable. Whether she is serenading rowdy children with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” or mowing down a field full of the undead, Nyong’o is never less than delightful. In one particular scene where she recounts the complicated story of how she got into teaching, you can actively see Nyong’o weave in and around of the absolute nonsense she has to say. She gracefully dodges the silliness, rising above everything else on the screen. If you had given this character to almost any other actress, Miss Caroline would have been a bland mess masquerading as a meaningful character. Instead, we wonder how in the world she isn’t the main character of this film.
Unfortunately, Abe Forsythe’s script makes every character who isn’t Nyong’o or her students almost unbearable to watch. Alexander England’s Dave is a combination of Jack Black and Seann William Scott, although with none of the charm and all of the crassness. While England’s performance isn’t particularly bad, the script’s characterization of him is just shockingly awful. Why Forsythe thinks we should root for a guy who masturbates furiously to a photo of Miss Caroline where she is standing a few feet from her class of students is absolutely beyond me. Worst of all, the film abruptly transitions into making us think that Dave is actually a caring uncle whose childhood issues (as ill-defined as they are) are to blame for his disconnection from adulthood. The emotion is delivered well enough but the character never truly earns the respect needed to care.
Also abysmal is the character of Teddy Mcgiggle (Josh Gad), a children’s TV host visiting the zoo during the outbreak. Like England, Gad’s performance is not so much to blame, but rather the script’s failure at humor. The “television host who is actually a vulgar cretin” character is nothing surprising or funny in the slightest. Eventually, we just roll our eyes the second Gad comes on-screen as we wait impatiently for the stream of four-letter words to end so we can get back to Nyong’o carrying the film on her back.
To its credit, the zombie scenes in Little Monsters are handled surprisingly well. Even with a limited budget, there are some solid practical effects with very little reliance on CGI. The climax of the film is especially impressive and almost raises up the rest of the film. While Little Monsters is definitely a “zombie film,” the ghouls are used just the right amount for both tension and comedic impact. A children’s petting zoo is about as promising a setting as you can have for a horror-comedy, and the film uses it fairly well.
Little Monsters would have been an infinitely better film if it just excised every male character. This shouldn’t be the story of an overgrown manchild learning that he actually does want to be an adult. It should be about a strong-willed teacher using her mix of ingenuity and bravery to keep her students protected from physical or psychological harm. Little Monsters is a solid one-hour film of Lupita Nyong’o proving why she should be in every movie of every genre. It’s a shame forced emotion and dated humor consistently lumber out of the darkness like a zombie trying to slowly smother something with so much life and potential.
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