I can still recall my sixth grade science teacher with much affection. While it might be surprising to hear from someone who makes their living writing opinion, I never displayed an easy aptitude for the sciences. Yet a subject I might dread in other years was a wonder when our class followed Ms. Robinson seemingly anywhere, including on a trip to a coral reef. Good teachers are like that—making the foreboding seem fun. Be it science math, or hordes of undead zombies, as is the case in Little Monsters, problems are but calls to adventure. They also can formulate one of the genuinely happiest surprises at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Apparently inspired by the kindergarten teacher who writer-director Abe Forsythe says taught him to let go of his own anxieties for his five-year-old son, Little Monsters is an unexpected feel-good zombie comedy that is as equal parts The Magic School Bus as it is a grisly, R-rated undead slaughterfest stuffed with disemboweled guts and endangered goats. Obviously utilizing discordant elements, Forsythe ably creates a peculiar harmony of sunshine and carnage, particularly whenever Lupita Nyong’o picks up a ukulele and gets her Taytay on.
In the film, Nyong’o plays Miss Caroline, the effervescent instructor of an Australian kindergarten class who dazzles all the children—and also might catch the attention of a few of their worst fathers too. While Dave (Alexander England) is thankfully no papa, he is a strung out loser of an uncle that will always be quick to find reasons to help Miss Caroline and her class. Dave himself is recovering from a bad breakup and a decade of going nowhere by sitting on his sister’s couch and teaching his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) every bit of Star Wars trivia. But things take an unexpected turn when he agrees to be the class’ chaperone to a pastoral petting zoo.
As it turns out, right next to an idyllic farmland filled with giant tractor trains and sleeping sheep is some nebulous government facility that is testing every biological danger known to man, as you are wont to do. And it just so happens on this day, they’ve accidentally unleashed a virulent zombie strand that’s turning everyone into the undead, as is ever the case. Soon enough, all that’s left of the petting zoo are few stray animals, an embittered child’s entertainer who once studied the Strasberg method (Josh Gad), and Miss Caroline’s class. Well them, and Dave.
A film giddy on its own silliness, Little Monsters flies by in a zippy 94 minutes like a putt putt golf birthday party decorated with streams of intestines. Undeniably standing on the shoulders of previous zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland before it, the trick about Forsythe’s amiable nonsense is the zombies are not the stars of the story.
To be sure, there are more than a few scenes of bumbling actors in stuffed costumes now bumbling after brains, and entire armies of the dead falling over each other to claim the life of the last enclosed baby goat, yet such horror tidings are simply a visceral example of a problem in need to be solved on the road of life, as opposed to the existential subtext of the movie. Wisely avoiding other recent failed attempts at zombie-related laughs, the humor does not come from the undead in Little Monsters, but in how they influence the classroom dynamics of Miss Caroline’s charge.
In that sense, the film is every bit a happy-go-lucky adventure story, even if the life lesson at its heart belongs to adults. With Forsythe’s stand-in being a gregariously debauched uncle, Dave is a pitch perfect sad sack whose journey into some form of familial responsibility for young Felix carries with it a sincerely sweet (if foul-mouthed) realization. It also helps that England and La Torraca enjoy an endearing chemistry. Their comic timing is downright gleeful when Dave forces Felix to dress up like Darth Vader as a prank early in the movie. The lad is always ready to commit.
The star of the piece though is of course Nyong’o in what may be her most vivacious starring role to date. Required to find a sophistication in a character who’s guiding star is compassion and empathy, she is able to center the entire film in her star orbit as a goodhearted teacher who may from time to time have to impale a bloodthirsty ghoul. Managing to keep the film from devolving into farce or pure camp, it is Nyong’o who makes Miss Caroline, amazing teacher of the year, come alive in a way that’s mirthful instead of maudlin. And again, it cannot be overstated how much she clearly adores rocking out to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
Coupled with a scene-stealing cameo-plus by Gad—who is also reveling in his Olaf alter-ego turning lecherous wretch between Frozen gigs—and Little Monsters is its own kind of infectious, zombie bites or not. The concept of the undead versus school teachers is midnight movie madness, yet the film is every bit as warm as a Saturday morning cartoon. With the right outlook and guiding hand, nothing need be scary, and the mundane (or monstrous) can be a perfect escape.