‘Flora & Ulysses’ Review: This Year’s Cuddliest Superhero Film

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There’s an elemental power to stories of children befriending some kind of nonhuman
creature. Whether it’s a homesick alien, towering robot, or sentient UFO, these stories
cause the main characters to find their humanity while dealing with something
otherworldly. It’s a tried-and-true trope, one that is often trotted out with varying
degrees of effectiveness, and the latest example is a cute and cuddly superhero romp
called Flora & Ulysses. Instead of a transformer, iron giant, or extraterrestrial, the
friendship at the heart of Flora & Ulysses is between a young girl and an ultra-powerful
squirrel. Incredibly, it works.

Based on the Newberry Award-winning children’s book by Kate DiCamillo (and hitting
Disney+ on Friday), Flora & Ulysses stars newcomer Matilda Lawler as Flora, a self-
described cynic who is obsessed with comic books and concerned about whether or not
her parents’ recent separation will be permanent. (Her parents are played, winningly, by
Ben Schwartz and Alyson Hannigan.) One day, she overhears a neighbor’s Roomba-like
robotic vacuum cleaner/lawn trimmer run over a small squirrel. Reviving the squirrel,
who she names Ulysses (after the model of lawnmower), she is struck by the fact that the
squirrel now exhibits superhuman abilities – including, but not limited to, flying and
being able to write simple (but affecting) poetry.

Via Disney+

From there, a lot of oversized comic hijinks ensue, with Ulysses often at the center of the
action. He runs afoul of a local animal control officer (played by Danny Pudi) and helps
botch a newspaper profile of Flora’s mom meant to bolster enthusiasm for an upcoming
project (she’s a romance novelist who was once given a prestigious award in the shape of
the main characters from Titanic but is now suffering from writer’s block). But it’s
through Ulysses, through his joyfulness and sense of purpose, that Flora’s cynical armor
begins to fall away. And by the end of the movie, each member of the family has been
moved and changed by that rascally rodent. (Yes, squirrels are rodents. I just looked it
up.)

Read: The Littlest Lessons Leave the Greatest Impact: ‘Soul’ Review

Svelte and directed with comic liveliness by Lena Khan, Flora & Ulysses is springy and
fun. It doesn’t have the same pathos and depth of, say, Disney’s somewhat similar Pete’s
Dragon
remake (the very best in the recent string of live-action adaptations), but is still
a warmhearted and amusing trifle, one that fits in nicely with the rest of the Disney+
original film slate – inoffensive, brightly photographed, earnestly performed. And the
animation of the squirrel, done by the magicians at Framestore, is genuinely dazzling –
Ulysses is expressive and fluid, with an impressive amount of emotional range. But he is also very much an animal – the fur on his body, the way the fuzz moves around his ears,
his physicality is all incredibly grounded and naturalistic. It’s the movie’s very best
magic trick, and the scenes where actors have to emote opposite Ulysses are oddly
affecting. Newcomer Lawler has impeccable comic timing (she even appears to adlib in a
number of scenes with Schwartz) and finds herself emoting properly opposite Ulysses;
ditto Hannigan, who has a scene where she cries opposite a computer-generated squirrel
and, against all odds, makes it believable and downright moving.

Flora & Ulysses is less fun when it seems to be serving Disney’s corporate interests more
than the story itself. The movie opens with an odd, very clearly after-the-fact montage of
Marvel superhero characters even though Schwartz’s character is a frustrated comic
book artist whose original characters appear elsewhere in the film. (Also, in a stack of
comic books later in the movie, DC Comics appear, including Batman.) Additionally, the
family has a doorbell shaped like the Captain America that, for some reason, plays a
doorbell chime version of a Star Wars musical cue. Also, it goes without saying that in
addition to Schwartz and Pudi, the rest of the voice cast from Disney’s DuckTales reboot
appear in the flesh, including Bobby Moynihan (as a disgruntled comic shop owner) and
Kate Micucci (as a put-upon diner waitress). Moynihan’s character is even introduced
while reading a DuckTales comic, blurring the line between clever in-joke and craven
synergy. Just try not to roll your eyes with Flora tells her father (off-screen), “I love you
3000.”

But truthfully, these moments don’t do much to take away from Flora & Ulysses. It’s not
a triumph, exactly, but it’s a lovely little movie that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny
and, at 90 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome. At its best, it taps into that power that
so many child-meets-weird-creature classics have harnessed over the years, coming up
with a charming story about what it means to be human and how cynicism can get in the
way of making meaningful connections. This isn’t groundbreaking but sometimes it
doesn’t have to be. [B+]

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