Little Monsters (2019)


Think of her as a poor man’s Michonne.

(2019) Horror Comedy (NEON/HuluLupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, Alexander England, Nadia Townsend, Kat Stewart, Stephen Peacocke, Diesel La Torraca, Henry Nixon, Marshall Napier, Saskia Burmeister, Rachel Romahn, Talayna Moana Nikora, Felix Williamson, Lucia Pang, Ava Caryofyllis, Jason Chong, Adele Vuko, M.J. Kokolis, Carlos Sanson, Kristy Brooks. Directed by Abe Forsythe

 

Comedies in the horror genre have to strike a most delicate balance. On the one hand, the scares have to deliver but on the other hand so do the jokes – all without dragging the movie down to the level of a spoof. It’s hellishly hard to pull off.

This Australian zombie apocalypse effort does give it the old college try. Slacker Dave (England), a washed-up metal musician has broken up with his girlfriend Sara (Townsend) – we spend most of the credit sequence watching a montage of the uncomfortable arguments between the two – and has taken up on his sister Tess’s (Stewart) couch.

He’s a self-centered twit who has taken no ownership of his own part in his relationship’s demise. He bonds with her son Felix (La Torraca) over violent videogames and inappropriate behavior, but the kid is five years old and seems much more mature than Felix who has already frayed the nerves of his sister to the point that she’s ready to kick him out of her flat. Maybe that would have done him some good.

Instead, he develops a crush on Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), the perky kindergarten teacher of Felix. He ends up volunteering to chaperone on a field trip to a petting zoo/farm where kid TV superstar Teddy McGiggle (Gad) happens to be shooting his TV show on location. Also coincidentally. but pf a much less desirable sort, an experiment on a nearby U.S. military base has gone terribly out of control and a horde of zombies are descending on the unsuspecting attraction, putting the kids and celebrities alike at risk.

The gore sequences are done pretty decently, although there’s nothing particularly cutting edge here and nothing you haven’t already seen on The Walking Dead. Where the movie really falls down is as a comedy; much of the humor is extremely broad, perhaps in an effort to appeal to a younger audience but the gore is at times intense so that would seem to indicate that the filmmakers were looking for a mature audience. Or maybe, that they figure that the younger sense is desensitized to the violence through their embrace of videogames. They might have a point.

There is also a point that is a tribute to teachers and much of that goes to Nyong’o whose Miss Caroline reminds us of the teachers who shielded their charges from flying bullets at Newtown and other equally infamous school shooting situations. It’s also easy to understand why anyone would develop a crush on her; Nyong’o absolutely shines here and dang it if you won’t develop a bit of an attraction to her as well. As for the other lead characters, Dave is far too self-centered a creature to root for much and despite his turn to the light midway through the film, his change of heart doesn’t seem quite believable. Gad is generally a compelling performer but the alcoholic and cowardly McGiggle is simply too repulsive and one-note to be memorable – so much so that I had to go back to this paragraph and add him in just before publishing this review.

The pacing is a bit leaden and the film’s inability to decide what it wants to be costs it. In a season when we’ll be flooded with horror films, there are others that are undoubtedly more worthy of your attention than this one (hopefully the Zombieland sequel will be one of them). Other than Nyong’o, there really isn’t much to recommend this film but she’s almost enough. Almost.

REASONS TO SEE: Nyong’o is absolutely lustrous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor falls flat in places. Ridiculously slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, bloody zombie violence, brief drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off” is a pivotal song in the screenplay but initially the producers couldn’t secure the rights. It took a personal appeal from Nyong’o directly to Swift I order to get the rights to the song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
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Serendipity

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer


When the Reindeer Games become more like the Hunger Games.

(2018) Animated Feature (Screen Media)  Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Morena Baccarin, Martin Short, John Cleese, Christopher Jacot, Rob Tinkler, George Buza, Jeff Dunham, Jean Yoon, Julie Lemieux, Carlos Bustamante, Scott Farley, Steph Lynn Robinson, Darren Frost, Angela Fusco, Quancetia Hamilton, Carly Heffernan. Directed by Jennifer Westcott

 

Every year at this time we get a glut of Christmas-themed animated movies and TV shows, all looking to take their place among the perennials that get watched over and over again year after year. Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer has the ingredients to join that rarefied company but it won’t be an easy hike to get there.

In a world (and what critic hasn’t dreamed of starting a review off with those three words) where Santa (Buza) is real and everyone knows it, he is struggling to keep up with increasing demand as the world’s population explodes. His original team of reindeer are shrinking with one going to an ashram to find himself, another defecting to Russia for a romance, and most recently Vixen (Hamilton) leaving for the Florida Keys to open up a juice bar – three days before Christmas.

This leads to a frantic try-out competition for the coveted position on Santa’s team but his right-hand elf Lemondrop (Short) is no fan of reindeer and he has a point; reindeer have become arrogant, egotistical and overbearing and the elves loathe them. Santa keeps them on as a kind of nod to tradition.

There are reindeer trainers all over the world and as word gets out about the tryouts, Walter (Tinkler) – the owner of a slowly failing petting zoo – is counting on DJ (Jacot) to be his meal ticket. He has already sold off the animals in the petting zoo including pony (“MINIATURE HORSE!”) Elliot (Hutcherson) and Elliot’s omnivorous friend Hazel the goat (Bee). Elliot has long had the goal of being part of Santa’s team but it’s a reindeer-only club. Nonetheless he and supportive Hazel stow away on a rocket sleigh (all the trainers have them although Walter’s is in line with his status falling apart) and swaggers his way into the tryout with the help of fake antlers.

The rest of the plot is fairly formulaic; the buyer of the farm animals turns out to be a producer of exotic jerky meat, there is a conspiracy in Santa’s village to force the reindeer out and convert to rocket sleighs, and saving the lives of his farm friends as well as saving Christmas itself will eventually rest on the broad miniature shoulders of Elliot.

The animation here is mostly nondescript, although some of the Santa’s village and arena scenes are pretty imaginative and for once the characters have expressive faces rather than robotic ones. While he only appears in two scenes as Santa’s haughty reindeer Donner, John Cleese is always a pleasure. Something tells me that if filmmaker Jennifer Westcott had let Short, Cleese and Dunham improvise a bit, it might have benefited her film a lot.

Some critics have latched onto a subplot involving magic cookies which make the reindeer fly (as well as any other animal that eats them) and some unscrupulous reindeer taking more of them than they’re allowed, some even suggesting it promotes performance enhancing drug use. Sorry colleagues; sometimes a magic cookie is just a magic cookie.

For that reason the film feels more than a little bit formulaic which hurts its chances of ascending the heights as does the overbearing soundtrack which sounds like what you might have heard in a cartoon circa 1975. However, there’s still a chance for plucky Elliot to become a seasonal favorite. Many of the movies and TV shows that we consider to be classics really aren’t all that good; they resonate with us because we saw them over and over again as children. And I will say given the avalanche of product that comes out each year, this is head and shoulders above the rest which is mostly mindless soulless dreck. I don’t know that I’d want to revisit this year after year but there are children seeing it this year for whom this will become a treasured childhood memory. One certainly can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: This has the makings of a Christmas perennial. The voice work is splendid and any chance to hear John Cleese at work is worth it.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is annoying. There are a few too many clichés in the script.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude and mildly suggestive humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to a very small limited release as well as a VOD release, the film has a one day special screening on December 1 at about 100 additional theaters across the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Family in Transition