I love about a third of Abe Forsythe’s zombie comedy Little Monsters. The middle act, from roughly the 25-minute mark to just shy of 60, blends horror and humor, heart and gore, in a way many movies that attempt such a synthesis fail to accomplish. It’s fun and gooey and delightful. While maybe not the freshest take on the undead, the image of Lupita Nyong’o in a bright yellow dress, beheading walking corpses with a shovel is enough to fill me with glee.
Problems arise when the film focuses on any character other than Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline, a perky school teacher who’s fond of playing Taylor Swift songs to her students on a ukulele. Which it does far too often for its own good. The bulk of the plot unfortunately revolves around David (Alexander England), a failed musician who, by a convoluted confluence of circumstances, finds himself chaperoning a field trip for Miss Caroline’s class of adorable moppets just a zombie outbreak occurs.
It’s nothing against England, he’s fine and gives it his all. I’m just sick to fucking death of his character and his arc. Dave is the kind of dickhead who walks around with his guitar slung over his shoulder so everyone knows he was in a band six years ago. He’s entitled, shitty to everyone, and blames all of his self-inflicted problems on other people, usually women like his ex and sister and mother. And it’s readily apparent from the first second that, as terrible as he is, he’s going to find a generic, unearned redemption, and that he’s going to learn what everyone else already knows, that he’s an asshole and needs to change. It’s not an interesting journey. His story is not unique or special. And it’s such an overused, overdone trope that it’s hackneyed and tired and just the worst damn mood killer. I’m so over it.
It takes 20 minutes of Dave being awful before we even meet Miss Caroline, and it’s easy to see why Forsythe chooses to focus on her once she arrives. Nyong’o is fantastic and commands the screen—like Dave isn’t even there anymore. Her bubbly, cheery surface masks a fierce devotion to her charges, and even as the world goes to hell and zombies chow down on other people, she steers her class through danger and out of harm’s way with a song and a smile. At times she’s a bit too perfect and pure—she’s so good her singings even sooths and calms flesh-hungry monsters.
Little Monsters truly finds itself when it lands at the theme park and things unravel. Everything else is the framework to get that place, and the movie also makes the right decision to not waste much time on the details and reasons behind the zombie outbreak. When it hits, it’s irreverent, gory, and sweet. There are monsters, peril, and Josh Gad’s children’s performer Teddy McGiggles having a full on psycho meltdown. Gad, who I’m not usually fond of, has a blast with his heel turn, screaming at children and breaking down completely. And it’s when Miss Caroline threatens to shank him, you realize there’s more to her than sunshine, lollipops, and cartoon forest creatures who help her dress in the morning.
This momentum only lasts so long, however. Instead, the script, also from Forsythe, turns to force-fed earnestness and shoehorned-in back stories—it’s imperative, of course, we learn why David is such a pile of crap. (His tale of woe is every bit as bland and tepid as the rest of his persona.) And the pace faceplants into the dirt, killing any and all energy.
The final act is fine. It’s more or less your basic final act of a zombie movie. Bloody, with a few scares and thrills and laughs, it plays out as expected. The script introduces a ticking clock is that plays no significant role, and it forces a big hero moment with David’s nephew, Felix (the awesomely named Diesel La Torraca) that’s telegraphed from the early goings. But even when it’s solid, more pacing issues arise.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Neil Diamond as much as the next guy—probably more, ask me about my scar—and it’s cool a key emotional moment hinges one of his songs. But maybe don’t pause for a three-minute song break in a key spot as the story builds to the climax. As this happens, Teddy stands there, mouth agape, gob-smacked they chose this specific moment to sing instead of act, and you feel the character’s pain and frustration. Again, it derails the momentum the film had re-built since the doldrums at the end of act two. This act also shifts the focus back to David, who is just as flavorless and tedious as before.
This seems to bother me more than many others who have seen Little Monsters. But it frustrates me because what’s good is so good that the tired, generic, asshole-who-learns-to-be-nice narrative sucks even worse than usual by comparison. That said, Little Monsters has enough going for it—chiefly Lupita Nyong’o and (I can barely believe I’m typing this) Josh Gad—that it’s still reasonably fun and worth checking out. [Grade: B-]