Riotous and gory, comedic and brash, Little Monsters is a moving story about how far adults will go to minimize children’s experience with trauma.
Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters makes it clear early on that its title has a double meaning. After all, it’s a film about a class full of kindergarteners trying to escape from a horde of zombies. But when the title phrase does actually get mentioned on screen, it’s not in a joke at all. Instead, it occurs at one of the film’s many surprisingly tender moments, when washed-up death-metal guitarist and questionably mature uncle Dave (Alexander England) and his young nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) are calming down one of Felix’s classmate with a lullaby from Felix’s mother, Tess (Kat Stewart), about making the “little monsters” go away.
This is really at the core of what the film is about: It’s riotous and gory, comedic and brash, but at its heart, it’s really a moving story about how far adults will go to minimize children’s experience with trauma and monsters. To make them little, even when they’re crowded just outside a souvenir shop window, peering in through the blood-smeared glass.
The trouble all begins when David offers to help chaperone a field trip to the zoo in order to spend some more time with Felix’s teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). When they get to the zoo (driving straight past, in one of the film’s many instantly comedic frames, a military testing site), they find that Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a world-famous children’s television personality, is also there for a visit. Miss Caroline and the children all seem enamored by him, and David starts sulking—until a horde of flesh-eating zombies cross into the zoo and begin eating and zombifying everyone they can get their hands on.
Miss Caroline—who goes by her first name, Audrey, around other adults—is the true crux of the story, the character upon which every other character and storyline hinges for both their personal growth and their literal survival. The course of the story and the other characters’ responses to the zombie invasion are all guided, streamlined and, in a couple of cases, forced by Miss Caroline’s composure, strength and determination to protect the group of kids in her charge. She says this to the children like the simple truth that it is: “My job is to keep you safe. That’s what I’ll do.”
Protection, in Little Monsters, takes on a somewhat new meaning in comparison to how it’s handled in lot of other forays into the zombie apocalypse. There’s no gritty, this-is-our-world-now moment. No time-to-grow-up, no impossible decisions forced on small children. This film is unique in that it deviates from the more typical coming-of-age message of zombie films, where physical survival comes at the cross of emotional devastation; in Little Monsters, the entire point is keeping the children from having to fight the monsters themselves, from having to grow up.
It’s also a fresh take in that the zombies are not taking over the entire world; this is just a minor-ish, contained incident near the zoo. The comedy of this is hammered in when one of the army officials remarks, unimpressed, that it’s “Zombies again,” and his companion’s only response is to ask, “Fast or slow?”
Miss Caroline and David’s shared goal of protecting the children, both physically and emotionally, leads to so much of the beautiful, unannounced irony that makes Little Monsters such a successful comedy film—like Miss Caroline strumming her ukulele while leading a line of children with their hands on each other’s shoulders briskly past the hordes of zombies, or asking brightly, “Who wants to be a wiggle-worm?” to get them to crawl through a small hole into the souvenir shop.
But the goal also heralds the development of David’s character: At the beginning of the film, he’s sulky, crude and wholly unsympathetic. Miss Caroline—bolstered, of course, by a characteristically stunning performance from Nyong’o—epitomizes what David, before coming to the zoo, simply can’t seem to do or at least prioritize: setting aside one’s own issues, fears and insecurities in order to protect children from danger and trauma. The dire circumstances of needing to maintain a light and levelheaded atmosphere for survival’s sake are what push David to protect Felix at all costs, bond with others on a human level and admit where other people have worked and sacrificed so that he could rely on them (specifically Tess and Miss Caroline). The whole “washed-up, jaded man escapes death, redeems himself and gets the girl” trope can be very overused these days, but Little Monsters actually succeeds where so many of these other stories fail, through its commitment to the authenticity of David’s development and to Miss Caroline as the true hero of the story.
There are a few moments that might be hard to interpret —Teddy McGiggle feels extremely irredeemable (possibly too much) at the beginning for the sake of the comedy, shutting all of the children outside to be eaten. But when he briefly does attempt a moment of redemption in a conversation with David, Gad’s delivery is hilarious and heartfelt. The children’s behavior mostly rises and falls in one big tide rather than bubbling up with different students at different times, but overall, they’re probably just unruly enough to be believed.
The film is full of incredibly moving moments and images: Miss Caroline singing a lullaby of “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” to a roomful of tired-eyed kids; a lamb at the zoo trapped between two walls of zombies with their arms outstretched; Felix’s class softly singing “Shake It Off” to calm him down in the midst of anaphylactic shock; the zombies clapping along to “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” There’s a moment at the end when it seems like this calm core of love is about to be disrupted, when the army quarantines David and Miss Caroline and the class—but the very next scene sees them explaining exactly what happened to the children’s families, heralding David and Miss Caroline’s bravery and promising to let them out in 48 hours. The family then goes to watch as David and Miss Caroline sing “Shake It Off” to the children, all gathered together sleepover-style inside the quarantined area.
This is helpful, novel and ultimately just a relief for us to see: army officials being friendly and communicative, adults being on the same page and in control, children being happy and blissfully ignorant. Full of quirky comedy, surprising takes on old ideas and rich emotional and personal interior, Little Monsters is a new kind of zombie movie, and one to which we should all pay attention.