One of the weirder aspects of looking back at movies that you’ve missed is when it was a kids’ movie from your childhood that you never saw. Little Monsters, the first (and aside from an obscure documentary, only) film from director Richard Greenburg, was released in 1989. It’s absolutely aimed towards children; while there are a few swear words here and there (no doubt to avoid the dreaded G rating), the humor is all at a juvenile level. As the 34-year-old man I am now, I’m not the target audience for this film. But when it came out, I was ten years old. I was precisely the target audience for it at the time. I just didn’t see it.
I suspect I would have enjoyed the film about the same as a ten-year-old, but I don’t think I would have remembered it or gone back to watch it again multiple times.
The film stars Fred Savage, during what was the height of his career as a child actor. Savage plays Brian, a middle school student who has just moved into a new neighborhood. He has no real friends at his school, and he’s also having a tough time at home. His parents are constantly arguing, and his father (Daniel Stern) is generally one of the bigger jerks in children’s cinema. He ignores his kids except when they’re in trouble — and they’re always in trouble, often through no fault of their own. But if something goes wrong, it’s the kids — and usually Brian — who get the blame. One of the most prominent examples is when he backs over Brian’s bicycle, and yells at Brian for the ding to his car, not caring about the ruined bicycle. To a certain extent, it’s almost academic that Brian didn’t leave the bike behind the car; the father is simply out of line.
It’s not the kid’s fault you didn’t check behind the car before backing up like a responsible driver.
Of course, it’s important to the plot of the movie that it’s not Brian causing trouble. Brian’s little brother Eric has some problems of his own. Eric has a monster under his bed. (Eric is played by Ben Savage; their younger sister Kala has a small role as one of the monsters.) Brian agrees to switch rooms with him for a night just to humor him, but discovers that there really is a monster. After a few efforts to trap the monster, Brian finally succeeds in getting a chance to talk to him and find out what’s going on.
The monster, named Maurice, is played by Howie Mandel. This is going to be a significant factor in whether or not a viewer enjoys the movie, as for much of the film Mandel is essentially let loose to go as wild as he can. It wasn’t quite enough for him to wear out his welcome with me — and is helpfully tempered by some of the heartwarming schmaltz that kids’ movies are made of — but it’s not hard to see how it could wear thin for some. But he’s definitely having fun in the role, and much of the humor comes from him, including a few jokes that are aimed at the adults in the audience.
Maurice explains that monsters exist in a parallel world, and enter the normal world through portals underneath beds. They then play pranks on the kids and their families, causing all the problems that kids get blamed for. Maurice takes Brian along with him, and the two start having fun and games every night.
Here Brian playfully sets someone up for a broken neck.
Adults are going to realize the implications of all this before the kids do, but it doesn’t take too long for the movie to point out the obvious: Brian and Maurice are essentially engaging in bullying, just like the treatment that Brian is sick of receiving at school. It hits Brian hard when he realizes it, but trouble’s already brewing: the more time he spends in monster land, the more like a monster he becomes, and the head monster wants him to become one of the fold. The darker implications of this aren’t spelled out quite so clearly for the kids, but the adults are going to find all sorts of nasty thoughts creeping up. Early on Maurice says he’s been doing this for 200 years… but when asked how old he is, he says “Eleven”. And most of the monsters introduced have ordinary human English-language names. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that if being caught in monster land turns one into a monster, then all of the monsters were once kids. And then one considers the head monster, simply named “Boy”, and wonders — with a name as generic as that — just how long has that kid been there?
The movie doesn’t deal with those implications much, however; just the specific instance of the risk to Brian. The last act is a typical kids adventure movie, with Brian, Maurice and friends taking on Boy and his cronies to save the day. It’s not going to wow any adults in the audience, but they should find it tolerable at worst, and kids will enjoy it even if they are unlikely to find it particularly memorable. I will say one thing in favor of its ending, as much as I can do so without spoiling it: For once, a supernatural kids’ movie has the good grace to end on a note that the adults in the film won’t be able to come up with a rational explanation for and yet won’t be able to just brush off, either.