Turns out all the zombie genre needed was Lupita Nyong’o playing a ukulele
I'm always tired of people complaining about the zombie genre being overdone and unoriginal. Sure, there are many zombie movies and TV shows seemingly being released all the time. The Walking Dead certainly made audiences very accustomed to its type of zombie drama, while Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland make every other zombie comedy, or “zom-com”, play catch-up. But every once in a while we get a zombie film that defies what we know of the genre and dares audiences to call the zombie movie dead. Last year we got Korean period piece Rampant, and Scottish Christmas musical comedy Anna and the Apocalypse. This year it is Australian filmmaker Abe Forsythe who shows us just how little we've actually done with the undead and injects the genre with his own mix of humor, heart, and Taylor Swift songs played on a ukulele.
Little Monsters begins by convincing us that its protagonist, Dave (Alexander England), is not a good person. After a brutal breakup, this Aussie slacker and former frontman for death metal band God's Sledgehammer ends up crashing on the couch at his sister Sara's (Nadia Townsend) place, where he spends most of his time playing Left 4 Dead II, masturbating to virtual reality, and being a terrible influence to his 5-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca). Dave soon finds a reason to get off the couch after he meets Felix’s kindergarten teacher, the delightful, ukulele-playing, singing-voice-of-an-angel Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong'o). One look is enough to make Dave sign up to chaperone the kindergarten field trip to a petting zoo/mini-golf course called Pleasant Valley Farm, in an effort to appear as a nice guy--but mostly to try and get into Miss Caroline's pants. While at the Farm, they also run across Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), an alcoholic, egocentric, sex-addicted TV host for a children's show who is just a few pitches higher than Krusty the Clown.
Little do they know that their fun day of animal petting, tractor riding, and mini-golf is going to be interrupted by a literal zombie attack. You see, Pleasant Valley Farm is next to a facility run by the US Army, where they have apparently let loose a few zombies in the past. Forsythe, who wrote and directed the film, wastes no time in following a long tradition of using zombies as a metaphor for humanity's foolishness--in this case, the US military interfering with other countries in one way or another. The commentary doesn't go deeper than "military grunts are bad," and the zombie makeup stops at "let's make them look pale white," but the movie has other strengths that make up for it.
As soon as the zombies start killing the employees and visitors of the petting zoo, Forsythe reveals his plan to make Little Monsters one of the most special zombie movies in years. In a move that is both a love letter to the kindergarten teachers who inspired and nurtured us, and also reminds of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, most of the film involves Miss Caroline's efforts to keep the children free from trauma and the knowledge that those are real human intestines being eaten. Indeed, she will stop at nothing to shield her kids, and will use every children's game and song available to do her job, from avoiding getting eaten (by playing tag), or avoid seeing something awful ("one, two, three, eyes on me!"), to distract them by doing a conga line so they don't get lost in the middle of a zombie-infected zoo, or playing Taylor Swift on the ukulele (good luck getting “Shake it Off” out of your head).
Little Monsters would not work if it wasn't for Forsythe's tight script and an excellent eye for emotion. Whether it's the fear in the adults as they run out of options, the moments of levity as Dave does something stupid or foul-mouthed, or just the adorable Max (Charlie Whitley) getting anxious and angry over the lack of putt-putt golf he was promised, the camera always captures the raw emotion to the point where you are constantly laughing before feeling warm in your heart.
The entire cast is game for whatever new silly thing the movie does. La Torraca will warm your heart as often as he breaks it, and he has the best homage to Darth Vader in decades. Josh Gad does a great job returning to his roots and playing the arrogant self-absorbing jerk who doesn't care about anyone but himself, and also is hilarious at it. Gad also makes for a perfect contrast foil to England's Dave, who convincingly sells his journey from mean-spirited jerk to selfless hero. Without a doubt, the standout performance of the film goes to Nyong'o as Miss Caroline. Not only does she excel at playing Caroline's sweet nature and love for her class, but she also doesn't hide the fact that she is a complete badass. She is not afraid to get bloody and mercilessly decapitate zombies left and right, even if she does it with the care of a kindergarten teacher.
Zombie-comedies are nothing new, but Little Monsters stands out by not only providing great laughs but being infectiously adorable. Its slapstick humor will be enough to lure audiences in, but its goodwill and heart of gold will leave you with a huge grin on your face hours after you leave the theater.