The original Disney Plus movie Flora and Ulysses is a story about a broken family that learns to understand each other again. But that’s not what the film’s trailer promised – it focuses almost entirely on the antics of a super-powered squirrel.
That squirrel doesn’t end up dominating as much of the movie as the trailers suggest. Actually yes Flora and Ulysses were lighter in the antics of the squirrel, director Lena Khan’s family comedy (Tiger hunter) and screenwriter Brad Copeland (Development arrested) might actually work better. The heart of the film is the self-proclaimed cynic Flora (Matilda Lawler), 10, who is caught up in her parents’ financial and marital woes, and just trying to make sense of the world.
The core of Flora and Ulysses it’s a sweet family story, bolstered by Lawler’s sharp acting. But it gets bogged down with animal chase capers and metatextual references to Disney properties. Still, it’s comforting and charming enough to support her message that family come together and move on.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Flora & Ulysses]
Based on the book of the same name by popular children’s author Kate DiCamillo (who also wrote For Winn-Dixie Y Despereaux’s Tale), Flora and Ulysses follows Flora, the daughter of a struggling comic book artist (Ben Schwartz) and a once prolific romance novelist (Alyson Hannigan). Flora once believed in superheroes, but her parents’ struggling marriage has forced her to reevaluate their relationship with hope and idealism. That is, until he rescues a squirrel from a runaway vacuum cleaner and discovers that he has superpowers.
The squirrel, which Flora calls Ulysses because of the brand of the vacuum cleaner that nearly killed him, has super strength and limited flight capacity. Not only does he understand humans, he writes poetry with Flora’s mother’s typewriter. Flora decides that she needs to discover Ulysses’ purpose as a hero and enlists the help of her father and her neighbor’s visiting nephew, William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who is temporarily blind after a hysteria-induced incident. But taking the squirrel out in public attracts the attention of an animal control officer (Danny Pudi). Cue the antics of “running away with a runaway squirrel.”
Those antics are tonally distracting from the rest of the movie. Pudi’s villainous character is hurt to give the story a conflict that is more concrete than a broken family learning to unite again. While there are moments of genuine excitement between the animal chase scenes, like when Flora shows up at her father’s new supermarket job and tries to save him from his pedantic manager, the movie simply features too many unsuccessful runs. Ulysses’ superpowers don’t even add much to the story, as much of the chase involves Flora, his father, or William hiding him somewhere. Tellingly, the power that carries the most weight of plot and screen time is his ability to write rudimentary poems.
The only thing that makes the movie worth watching is Flora herself. Lawler’s performance dominates the film. Flora, a former idealist who rejected any heroic ideas after her father moved out, already starts out as an interesting character, but Lawler makes her credible and brave as well. She is first introduced when she lists some of her once-favorite superheroes, in a scene that feels like a free showcase of previously Fox-owned Marvel heroes that Disney recently acquired. She then tosses a pile of her comics in front of an employee, ready to sell them because, as she says, heroes don’t exist in the real world. Lawler delivers her lines with a self-assurance that never feels over the top or awkward, as some young Disney stars can be. She keeps even the most boring scenes from being totally boring.
In the end, the story is not about a girl and her super squirrel, but about Flora and her parents. She shares a special relationship with both of them, which Khan and Copeland pass on at specific moments, which mostly develop the emotional quid (though Flora echoes Tony Stark in Avengers Endgame telling your dad, “I love you 3000” feels like heavy-handed corporate synergy). The CGI squirrel offers some cuteness and laughter, but it’s an auxiliary to the movie at best, and its chase sequences are creepy at worst. Still, with Lawler in command of his scenes, his dynamic with Hannigan and Schwartz shines through. Flora y UlyssesSometimes she transcends her gentle antics into tender and heartwarming family dynamics.
Flora and Ulysses will be available to stream on Disney Plus on February 19.