Little Monsters is a great advert for teacher excellence, if not much of a recruiting tool – as multi-talented kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline has to save her class of small charges as they face down an attempted zombie apocalypse.
I say attempted; it does feel a little half-hearted, as the world’s slowest undead hordes stagger round some fields vaguely pursuing the world’s slowest tractor full of kids.
That deliberate slowness is part of the film’s charm, and you’ll enjoy Little Monsters much more if you succumb to its rhythm rather than willing both children and zombies to hurry up.
This is the chicken korma of horror films; so mild that not even I was scared, and I used to make my toddler stay up to watch Doctor Who with me.
Luckily it’s considerably enlivened by Lupita Nyong’o’s wonderful performance as the warm, assertive, ukulele-playing Miss Caroline.
Whether beheading a queue of the undead with a spade, telling off cowardly kids’ entertainer Teddy McGiggle, or fibbing to her class about the “game” they’re currently playing as zombies press their noses to the glass outside, she is always firmly in charge.
Happily stepping over anyone, sentient or not, who gets between the children and safety, for Miss Caroline no part of their terrifying ordeal is so urgent that there isn’t time for a comforting, team-building sing-song first.
That, and the film as a whole, serves as a welcome reminder that kids – even if they can be awful (five year old Felix is initially bullied both for not liking broccoli and not having a dad) – are just kids, not small adults.
They meet the undead on a school trip to a local farm, and it’s down to Miss Caroline, Felix’s Uncle Dave (Alexander England), and Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) to help the children survive the night in the gift shop until either rescue arrives or they can save themselves.
Dave is a loser manchild, an unsuccessful musician and commitment phobe who’s left his girlfriend because she wants a baby. Moving in with his single-mum sister Tessa, Dave lets Felix stay up to play violent video games and is only helping out on the trip to the farm because he has the hots for Miss Caroline.
Little Monsters is set in Australia, though the farm is sited next to a US government facility, and their visit coincides with a breakout of zombies kept in the bowels of the building. (I loved the allusion to ongoing experiments: is it fast or slow zombies this time, asks one soldier sent to clear the area.)
Zombie movies are fertile ground for allegory (which would probably enrage real zombies no end, as we solemnly questioned them on what it’s like to be a metaphor for consumerism or capitalism or western government imperialism). Little Monsters‘ message (apart from paying teachers considerably more) is both about the issues children face growing up, particularly around family, and how scary these can be to a five year old; and about making learning child-centered, rather than turning them into braindead sheep like the private school zombies staggering aimlessly around outside. (I don’t know if they were private school zombies, I just like the idea.)
It’s also realistic, as far as a zombie movie can be – the children aren’t particularly innovative in terms of fighting back. They’re only five, after all. And while five year olds love some blood and gore, generally their problem-solving thinking leaves a lot to be desired, prefering to sit in a box rather than think outside of one.
Little Monsters may be quite low key in terms of comedy and horror. It’s amusing rather than hysterically funny, and not frightening. But the zombies themselves are effectively disgusting, and the original zombies (Impatient Zero?) who break out and infect the rest of the farm visitors and staff are both meaner and slightly faster than the ones they infect.
I’m not sure who the film’s audience is meant to be though. Older children (who would probably love it) won’t be able to watch it because of the constant swearing (which is very funny, but, well, constant). It’s a 15 certificate in the UK; that’s the same as John Wick 3!
Neither is it fast-paced, because these are the world’s slowest zombies. That’s obviously intentional but it does lessen the tension. After the clean up they’ll probably find the farm tortoises and sloths managed to amble away to safety just fine.
Gad doesn’t bring anything new to Teddy McGiggle. The drunk, mum-chasing children’s entertainer is a bit of a trope now, and while his self-loathing is enjoyable for a while, it isn’t sustainable through an hour and a half. Dave is more fun, with England ensuring that his uselessness is never endearing, and his growth into adulthood (at last!) is believable.
But this is Nyong’o’s movie, and she fills every scene she’s in with depth, energy and conviction.
Watch Little Monsters for Nyong’o and the funny, realistic class of little kids (scared, brave, sweet); and stay for some very, very mild peril.
Watch the trailer now and scroll down for images from the movie: