Flora & Ulysses is a hilarious and clever adaptation of famed author Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning children’s book. A cynical, friendless ten-year-old girl awakens a plucky squirrel’s superhero powers after saving him from an accident. The film is loaded with CGI critter gags, but it’s the human characters and subtle humor that steal the show. Flora & Ulysses addresses children with a degree of sophistication rarely seen in the genre. It becomes somewhat labored in the final act, but has already won you over with heartfelt goodness.
Flora Buckman, played brilliantly by Matilda Lawler, is a kid who’s lost hope. Her parent’s have recently separated and everyone is struggling in the aftermath. Flora’s mom, Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), is a romance novelist with writer’s block. Her dad, George (Ben Schwartz), is a failed comic book artist who could never provide for his family. Flora sells her beloved comic collection. Superheroes are just foolish fantasies. The real world is harsh and unforgiving. She has fully embraced cynicism.
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Flora changes her tune after the neighbor’s robotic vacuum cleaner sucks up a hapless squirrel. In a scene that had me laughing out loud, Flora revives the nut-loving tree rodent. She names him “Ulysses” after the model of the errant contraption. As Phyllis goes to ridiculous lengths for inspiration, Flora realizes that Ulysses can understand her. The squirrel then begins to exhibit amazing abilities. Flora tries to deduce Ulysses’ superhero purpose, but ends up on the radar of a squirrel-hating animal control officer (Danny Pudi).
Every character has a trait that makes them humorous and endearing. Flora’s dark and defeatist outlook lightens as Ulysses brings her family back together. The squirrel doesn’t speak, but…drumroll please…can type poetry and arrange word tiles into succinct sentences. The cast reactions to Ulysses poetic endeavors are hysterical. Flora & Ulysses is much funnier than expected.
The film incorporates the novel’s visual style. Flora sees her story playing out as a comic book. She imagines her father’s superhero creations following along with the adventure. Comic panels are inserted between key scenes to accompany the action. This adds an imaginative element to the flawless squirrel CGI. The production design, editing, and visual effects are well-done here. Director Lena Khan (The Tiger Hunter) shows significant skill in her second feature. She elicits a banner performance from her young lead in a technically complex film.
Flora & Ulysses runs out of creative juice in the end. It becomes protracted to fill a ninety-minute edit. A shorter cut would have tied up the film more effectively, as the narrative wanes in the last ten minutes. I’m also curious how a supporting character will be received. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth co-stars as William Spiver, a boy who is “hysterically blind” from stress. The actor is good and quite funny, but his laughs come at the expense of being blind. It’ll be interesting to see, pun intended, if anyone takes offense from this depiction. Flora & Ulysses is a production of Walt Disney Pictures and Gil Netter. It will be available to stream February 19th exclusively on Disney+.
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