At a certain point in life, you realize the movies you loved as a child don’t look the same through mature eyes. People who didn’t see those childhood favorites until later often think they’re terrible. The Goonies is a good example of a film that most people enjoy if they saw it when it came out, but people who saw it as adults do not. That realization makes revisiting movies from your childhood kind of scary.
Will they hold up? Will people judge you for loving something that’s obviously bad? Well, with all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I recently rewatched Richard Alan Greenberg’ Little Monsters, the film you probably know as “that Fred Savage movie where Howie Mandel has horns” (not to be confused with the 2019 movie of the same name, starring Lupita Nyong’o and a bunch of zombies). It’s a film I remember loving as a kid but hadn’t seen in decades. So, when I saw that it was coming to Amazon (and Hulu), I got fairly excited. Little did I know I was about to shatter my illusions of childhood wonder.
Little Monsters is not a good movie. Not by a long shot. If you’ve never seen or heard of it, it’s the story of a young boy named Brian (Fred Savage) who traps a gross monster named Maurice (Howie Mandel) in our world and the two become friends. In fact, Maurice likes Brian so much, he brings him to a secret alternate dimension that exists below our beds, where monsters live with the sole purpose of being assholes and eating junk food. However, when a life of sugar and evil pranks goes too far, Brian questions everything and the monsters kidnap his little brother (played by Ben Savage!) in retaliation. It’s then up to Brian and his friends to invade the monster world and rescue him.
[Editor’s Note: This movie scared the absolute crap out of me as a kid. Like underneath the bed wasn’t scary enough! -Jill P.]
There’s more to it too—like Brian has a crush on a girl, and the leader of the monsters is trying to trap Brian in their world forever, but those things just work to overly convolute an already confusing movie.
Unlike, say the similarly plotted Monsters Inc., there’s no reason given for what the monsters in Little Monsters do. Some monsters, like Maurice, pull pranks and terrorize kids because they think it’s funny. Others just kind of sit around and act creepy. But we never quite understand what the whole reason for this place is or what it is exactly. Is it Hell? Our subconscious? We don’t know.
At times, the whole movie feels like nothing more than an excuse for the filmmakers to make a bunch of creature costumes and film dumb pranks. That might sound like me giving a 1989 movie a 2019 reading where “being mean is wrong” and all that, but that’s not the case. In many cases, handled tastefully, being gross, offensive, and mean can be very funny. But in Little Monsters, it’s just dumb and completely pointless.
None of it ever amounts to anything of substance. The movie begins with Brian being very sad because his family moved to a new neighborhood, and his parents (played by Margaret Whitton and Daniel Stern, in a nice Wonder Years wink) argue a lot. They even mention they may be getting a divorce. So, from those clues, you’d assume Brian acting out with this alternate parental figure is somehow a rebellious act toward his real parents, and the film is trying to be a commentary on difficult childhoods. But that’s actually not laid out in the film at all. It’s 100 percent my personal inference of what the movie was maybe attempting to say.
Brian’s actions with Maurice never link, narratively or emotionally, with his parental relationship. Often it feels like Brian and Maurice are in a different movie from the parents. And no, Little Monsters doesn’t necessarily need to be about anything, but some thematic resonance could’ve help elicit emotions the film desperately needs.
One bright spot in Little Monsters is that Howie Mandel gives about 500 percent in his performance as Maurice. He’s totally engrossed in this creepy, weird, character and it shows. Unfortunately, his energy is counterbalanced by Fred Savage giving him almost nothing. It’s weird because Savage is almost always excellent, especially around this time period (see The Wonder Years, The Princess Bride, The Wizard etc.), but if a child actor has ever given a paycheck performance, it’s Savage in Little Monsters. The result is Mandel bouncing off the fucking walls and Savage half-caring at best. It brings the already struggling movie way down.
To say I was let down by revisiting this childhood favorite would be an understatement. It pained me to watch such an impressive group of talent (the movie was written by the guys who made Aladdin, for crying out loud) shit the bed so massively, especially when my nostalgia reserves were so primed and ready to go. The whole experience made me wonder, what about those other movies I loved as a kid? Is The Goonies as bad? The Monster Squad? Rad? Do I need to watch them again? Should I even? Was I that dumb of a kid? Well, I can answer that last one: probably, because it would have to take a certain lack of insight to find much enjoyment in Little Monsters.
If you dare, Little Monsters is now streaming on Amazon and Hulu.
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