Australia is home to a slew of supersize, venomous creatures that seem to have slithered right out of R. L. Stine’s imagination — so, be careful when visiting an Australian petting zoo. And be extra careful if, as in Little Monsters (which is in select theaters October 8 and streaming on Hulu October 11), you happen to wander in on the same day as a zombie invasion.
Written and directed by Abe Forsythe, the delightfully genre-bending movie follows just such a seriously ill-timed kindergarten class trip. The group of adorable five-year-olds wobble onto petting zoo grounds just as the similarly unsteady zombies are escaping from a nearby American experimentation facility.
The premise could be the making of a tragedy, but fear not: No children were harmed in the making of Little Monsters. The film is part blood-spattered horror flick, part slapstick comedy, part rom-com, part ode to Lupita Nyong’o, and part viral clip of Kids Say the Darndest Things — Little Monsters has a bit of everything and a whole lot of heart.
Ultimately, this genre mash-up serves as a vehicle for a story about becoming the Adult in the Room. Or, in this case, the Adult in the Gory Petting Zoo.
David (Alexander England), a chaperone on the trip, has a long way to go in this coming-of-adulting tale. When Little Monster starts, he’s the kind of guy you dump. David is underemployed, surly, and still carrying the torch for his metal band that broke up six years ago. He and his girlfriend speak only in yells. Inevitably, their relationship ends acrimoniously, and David ends up on his sister’s couch.
If David is a child in perpetuity, then his sister, Tess (Kat Stewart), has been an adult since childhood. She practically raised David, and chose to have her son, Felix (a simply adorable Diesel La Torraca), on her own. With his ridiculous stunts, David is an unwelcome interloper into their domestic idyll.
A more mature person would reconsider his actions and reform. David is not that person. He volunteers to chaperone the class trip because he’s stunned by Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong'o), his nephew's radiant, kind-hearted, and supremely capable kindergarten teacher.
Initially, Miss Caroline is too sublime to believe. She’s kind but has the determined gaze of a war general. She stifles her fear so well it seems she’s not afraid at all. On paper, this combination of traits seems unreal, but with relentless chipper energy and guilelessness, Nyong' o sold me on the possibility of a person like Miss Caroline. Someone who is fallible but determined not to let that get her down.
Only Miss Caroline could shine in a zombie apocalypse. In order to keep the kids calm, Miss Caroline spins the unfolding disaster into a game. Dodging zombies? Call it tag. Hiding away in a hut while supplies dwindle? Call it a sleep-over, complete with ukulele singalongs. Blood on a dress? Call it the results of a “strawberry jam fight.”
Miss Caroline’s gamification of a disaster resembles the approach Guido’s (Roberto Beginini) takes to help his son survive a concentration camp in the 1997 tear-jerker, Life is Beautiful. Guido, an Italian Jew, shields his son from their dire situation by telling him they’re competing in a game to win a war tank. Though the movie ultimately won an Academy Award for Best Picture, Life is Beautiful also was criticized for making light of an atrocity. Little Monsters bypasses becoming entangled with painful historical events, but explores similar dynamics.
Like Guido, Miss Caroline takes her duty to protect children from the jaws of a dangerous world seriously. She must not crumble — and she doesn’t. Little Monsters turns the act of taking responsibility for someone else into an act of heroism. And isn’t it always?
Eventually, the kids in Miss Caroline’s kindergarten class will face their own zombies. The zombies, if you didn’t realize by now, are also a metaphor for the world’s twists and terrors. Sometimes those terrors are zombies created by Americans, or Americans themselves, or Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a children’s entertainer who turns out to be craven. Sometimes they resemble David’s impasse: break-ups, loneliness, and dreams deferred.
Miss Caroline won’t be around to protect them from hurdles, both extreme and every day. But hopefully, they’ll have learned by her example. I know I have.