A few questions might race through your mind during the hectic opening moments of Abe Forsythe’s “Little Monsters,” in which an Australian couple shouts their way through an extended public breakup while bubbly piano music plinks by in the background. Questions like: “is that a Hemsworth?,” “can a zombie comedy perfectly split the difference between Edgar Wright and Taika Waititi?,” and “how are Lupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, and an invasion of the walking dead going to factor into this?”
Like everything else in this funny, spirited, and frequently clever 93-minute romp, the answers come fast and furious (“no,” “almost,” and “with the reckless abandon of a movie that doesn’t have any time for nonsense like ‘reasons’ and ‘logic’ because it’s too busy with a Neil Diamond singalong”). Alexander England — who honestly might still be a Hemsworth, despite what the internet and his birth certificate might tell you — stars as David, a scruffy blond musician with a bad case of stunted manhood. Forsythe’s script doesn’t get into specifics until the third act, but it’s clear from the start that David might be a bit too invested in his “stadium rock/death metal” band God’s Sledgehammer to really invest in a human relationship, or make room for the kids that sometimes come as a result.
Perhaps that explains why things don’t work out with David’s ex, and why he doesn’t have the first clue how to deal with his ultra-adorable five-year-old nephew Felix (a note-perfect Diesel La Torraca). Like seemingly every other director from his corner of the globe, Forsythe knows how to help a child actor thread the needle between cute and cloying; from the way Felix treats his pet tractor (yes) to his deep kinship with Darth Vader, La Torraca’s performance is bright-eyed and open to the wonder of our world in a way that’s sweet, hilarious, and ineffably real. England meanwhile becomes a most endearing foil, as he informs his character with such genuine indifference towards the guileless little boy that the scenes between them never feel like old schtick.
Forced to take Felix to school one day, David spends the whole time hitting on his nephew’s teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), who all the kids love and listen to without reservation. And when chaperones are needed for a field trip to a petting zoo called Pleasant Valley Farm, David only volunteers because he has hopes of touching something else along the way. He is, needless to say, not particularly well-equipped to handle the students nor their eminently capable substitute mom. The only person who might be more dangerous to have around those people might be beloved kids TV star Teddy McGiggle (Gad), a noxious wannabe Mr. Rogers who’s actually a sex addict who hates children. It doesn’t really matter how he finds himself in a small wooden hut with David, Miss Caroline, Felix, and 20 other little tykes when a horde of zombies breaks out of a nearby military base, but he does.
Forsythe’s sense of humor may be less referential (and his filmmaking less refined) than Edgar Wright’s, but “Little Monsters” and “Shaun of the Dead” provoke a similar giddiness from trying to negotiate human relationships in decidedly inhuman times. The action that clutters the last hour of this movie is never compelling enough to feel like anything more than a bloody distraction, but the characters vibe together so well on their own terms that the walking dead only need to provide an existential threat.
For a ramshackle movie that can sometimes feel rushed and tossed off, Forsythe does an excellent job of balancing the various energies of his cast. Gad is most potent in small doses, even if there are only so many times he can drop nuclear-grade F-bombs on a room full of small children before it gets old. Nyong’o initially seems like she’ll be stuck playing the proverbial straight man, but this brilliant actress is smart not to bait the laughs; there’s something ambiently hilarious (and movingly fragile) about how dedicated she is towards keeping the students calm, even if that means leading them on a conga line through a field of zombies. By the time she’s covered in blood and busting out a ukulele to serenade the kids with Taylor Swift covers, it’s impossible not to be impressed with her range (and not for the first time this year).
But the nucleus of “Little Monsters” exists in the space between David and Felix, and the movie is at its best when it hones in on the idea that having children — or at least having children around — can be a source of incredible strength. They don’t judge adults with the same mercilessness that adults judge themselves, and it can be a total blast (however sloppy) to watch Felix innocently reveal the root cause of his uncle’s fear. With a bit more craft and visual imagination, “Little Monsters” could have been something much bigger, but it has a very good time getting its point across. As one character puts it during a respite from defending themselves against hundreds of flesh-eating zombies: “There are plenty of things to be scared of in this world, but having kids isn’t one of them.”
“Little Monsters” will play in theaters on Tuesday, October 8. It will be available to stream on Hulu starting Friday, October 11.