Australian slacker Dave (Alexander England) excels at only two things: zombie video games and fighting with his girlfriend. Luckily, “Little Monsters'” kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) and her class of moppets, Dave’s, er, talents are perfectly timed for her disastrous school trip to Pleasant Valley Farm, a combination petting farm and mini-golf course that just so happens to be next door to a U.S. Military base experimenting with regeneration.
Thanks to Dave’s latest breakup, he’s been crashing with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and corrupting his precocious 5-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca). He’s got nothing better to do than volunteer to tag along with the kids, mostly so he can woo Miss Caroline with his heavy metal guitar. (Alas, she prefers ukulele renditions of Taylor Swift.) But when a zombie uprising chews up the lambs, cows, and tourists, Dave is there to help Miss Caroline save the children and see if he can win her heart before it’s ripped from her chest.
The only surprising thing that follows in writer-director Abe Forsythe’s colorful gore-comedy is Nyong’o’s commitment. The Oscar winner invests her teacher with such ferocious love, it’s like Nyong’o feared the Academy might see the film and retroactively revoke her statuette. Miss Caroline has two priorities: keeping her class alive and sparing them the trauma of knowing how close they are to death. She pretends zombie survival is a game. They’re playing a giant game of tag, she explains. The blood on her dress is merely strawberry jam. And when the hungry hordes chase the students through the park, she trills, “One, two, three — eyes on me!”
Still, Forsythe, whose last film was the quite-good political black comedy “Down Under,” is primarily concerned with Dave’s maturity. In kids’ book terms, he’s “The Developmentally Poky Little Puppy.” Can a shiftless loser who can’t even be bothered to understand Felix’s Epipen become worthy of Miss Caroline’s affection? Or rather, can a character who’s introduced screaming at his ex, fake crying to his sister, and bashing children with doorknobs be worthy of ours?
Dave is so selfish and loathsome, so typical of movie morons redeemed by a perfect heroine, that the only way the script can offset him is by creating a character who’s even worse: kids TV host Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a sociopathic drunk who brags that he’s boned thousands of moms and “learned Meisner from Pacino — Al.” Gad, too, gives the role his all, even when it means pulling empty baby bottles of booze from his green polka-dot suit pockets while the score swells with sympathetic violins. In desperation, he drinks hand sanitizer.
The paradox of “Little Monsters” is that it’s so guileless in its story and execution, it could have been made for kids, except for the disembowelings. Still, Nyong’o not only survives the film with her dignity intact, the audience might exit admiring her more. Her deadpan humor and grace ennoble the slapstick. And the sight of her in a yellow print dress and frog backpack hoisting a shovel over her shoulder and marching off to decapitate some ghouls made the theater burst into applause. It’s not an Oscar, but it’ll do.