On paper, Little Monsters ticks all the right boxes. First of all, it has an Academy Award Winner in Lupita Nyong’o, an actress at the height of her powers and having a brilliant 2019 thanks to her dual role in Jordan Peele’s Us. You have Josh Gad, swapping the family-friendly landscape of Disney for something utterly outlandish and not PG. And along with Alexander England (Alien Covenant), they collectively star in a Zom-Com adventure that could compliment Zombieland and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. What could go wrong?
Sadly, it turns out, quite a lot in this mix-bag affair, that’s neither scary nor funny enough to do this film, its star power or the genre it’s parodying any justice.
Despite the good intentions and hyped expectations, it’s a pity that Little Monsters falls flat on execution. Focussing on a failed musician, a school teacher and children’s entertainer as they protect a class of five-year-olds during a zombie outbreak, should have been a perfect escapade for hilarity and fun. However, the writing was on the wall from its jarring introduction.
As if it had a question mark looming above its head, Little Monsters feels like a film that’s regularly second-guessing itself. Right from its turbulent opening where Dave (Alexander England) and his girlfriend Sara (Nadia Townsend) argue to the ends of the Earth as the camera whips around from scene to scene, if you were going in blind with no prior knowledge or having not seen the trailer, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you’re witnessing the opening of a romantic comedy. Wouldn’t blame you either if you needed to double-check if you were watching the correct movie!
In reality, there’s no problem with films being ‘self-aware’ with its shifting tonal direction. Some could easily argue that’s a good thing – it keeps you on your toes and steers you away from any pre-conceived acts of predictability. It just has to own up to it. But from the get-go, this is a discombobulating film that’s already struggling to build momentum.
Adopting a blunt force manner throughout, it spends a significant amount of time to amplify Dave’s ‘down in the dumps’ life – he breaks up with his girlfriend, he sleeps on his sister’s couch as he has no place to go and is forced to look after his Star Wars cosplaying, tractor loving and allergy-afflicted nephew, introducing him to a profanity-filled lifestyle and violent video games. After taking his nephew to school, an opportunity arises where he volunteers as a chaperone for an upcoming school trip, hoping to impress his nephew’s school teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o).
When you have a plot that revels in absurdity (e.g. what are the chances of a highly classified military base at the centre of a viral zombie outbreak is within close proximity of an animal petting zoo), you have to take everything that you can get at face value. In some respects, given how simplistic and straightforward it is, it should have been snappy and more direct. Instead, it needlessly drags with the occasional zombified action to ramp up the scene, even if it doesn’t deserve that payoff or reward. There’s no shortage of attention-grabbing moments, chucking in every known convention, clichés and the brash vulgarity as it tries to decide what type of film it wants to portray itself as. But the longer it goes on (with comedy sprinkled in sporadically), it’s a novelty that quickly begins to wear thin.
What you do end up with is a generic story of male redemption – a classic and endlessly repeated story where a character’s journey is defined by the experience they’ve faced, only to learn something valuable in the end. And like all films that deploy this tactic, it conveniently asks its audience whether we empathetically care enough about their transformative journey. Well, the straightforward answer is no as we endure Dave’s dick-ish, self-centred, man-child behaviour that wouldn’t look out of place in a Seth Rogen comedy. Dave’s story is not remotely interesting, entertaining or rewarding as the film would have you believe, and the fact that Little Monsters is so heavily skewed in his favour, means that Nyong’o and Gad are viewed as one-dimensional and stereotypical supporting acts instead of becoming a fully-fleshed out beings in a cohesive and convergent narrative.
Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline is the ‘smart, intelligent woman’ trope who’s the object of desire for the implied and undeserving protagonist. Gad’s Teddy McGiggle frequently breaks the monotony as an egocentric celebrity intoxicated on brutal harsh truths with an unravelling demonstration on the downfalls of celebrity. But as much as it’s the perfect role for Gad to play, delivering comedic lines with a ferocious effect, somehow, it’s never captured in a way that makes it entirely satisfying as a viewing experience.
Of course, Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline is the bright spark. Here, she displays everything that we love about her – fearless with a pitchfork, slaying zombies ala Michonne from The Walking Dead to someone who can confidently rock out to Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off on a ukulele. That’s not a sentence you can often use, but not many actresses now have that in their repertoire!
But ultimately, Little Monsters wants to be hip, cool and contemporary, and in an attempt to be relevant, quirky, and different from the competition, Abe Forsythe’s film tries too hard without adding anything new to an oversaturated sub-genre. It deploys generic templates for its characters and shallow exposition that you’ve seen a thousand times before. And even when it boasts a top-billed, Oscar winner in its ranks who undoubtedly gives it her all and accepts the spirit of its absurd concept, somehow it’s not enough for a film that deserves more.
Is it a complete disaster? No, but for what it is worth, Little Monsters should have been better than what we got.
LITTLE MONSTERS is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.