The Disney Plus original film Flora & Ulysses is a story about a broken family that is learning to understand each other again. But that’s not what Trailer of the film I promise: it focuses almost exclusively on the gimmicks of a super powerful squirrel.
This squirrel doesn’t end up doing as much of the film as the trailers suggest. Indeed if Flora & Ulysses were easier on the squirrel antics, the family comedy by director Lena Khan (Tiger Hunter) and screenwriter Brad Copeland (Arrested development) could actually work better. At the heart of the film is 10-year-old self-proclaimed cynic Flora (Matilda Lawler), who is embroiled in her parents’ financial and marital problems and is just trying to understand the world.
The core of Flora & Ulysses is a sweet family story backed up by Lawler’s sharp performance. But it’s getting bogged down by car chases and metatextual references to Disney real estate. Even so, it’s heartwarming and charming enough to support the message that the family is coming together and moving forward.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Flora & Ulysses]
Based on the book of the same name by well-known children’s author Kate DiCamillo (who also wrote) Because of Winn-Dixie and The story of Despereaux), Flora & Ulysses follows Flora, the daughter of a struggling comic artist (Ben Schwartz) and a once prolific novelist (Alyson Hannigan). Flora once believed in superheroes, but her parents’ troubled marriage has forced her to reevaluate her relationship with hope and idealism. That is, until she rescues a squirrel from a runaway vacuum cleaner and discovers he has super powers.
The squirrel – which Flora Ulysses names after the brand of vacuum cleaner that almost kills him – has superpowers and some limited flight skills. He not only understands people, he writes poetry with Flora’s mother’s typewriter. Deciding to find out Ulysses’ intent as a hero, Flora asks for help from her father and nephew William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who is temporarily blind after an incident caused by hysteria. But getting the squirrel out in public attracts the attention of an animal control officer (Danny Pudi). Cue “run away with a squirrel” antics.
These antics are tonally distracting from the rest of the film. Pudi’s villain character feels intimidated to give the story a conflict that is more concrete than a broken family learning to reconnect. While there are moments of real emotion between chases – like when Flora shows up at her father’s new supermarket job and tries to save him from his pedantic manager – the film shows just too much fruitless walking around. Ulysses’ superpowers don’t even add much to the story, as Flora, her father, or William often hide him somewhere. It is significant that the skill that gets the most plot weight and screen time is its ability to work out rudimentary poetry.
The only thing that makes the film worth seeing is Flora herself. Lawler’s performance dominates the film. Flora is a former idealist who, after her father moved out, rejected any heroic ideas. She’s already starting out as an interesting character, but Lawler also makes her believable and spunky. She’s first featured as she lists some of her once favorite superheroes, in what feels like a free showcase for the Marvel heroes from Fox that Disney recently acquired. Then she tosses a pile of her comics in front of a clerk who is willing to sell them because, as she puts it, there are no heroes in the real world. Lawler delivers her lines with confidence that never feels exaggerated or clunky, as some young Disney protagonists can be. It prevents even the most boring scenes from becoming totally boring.
In the end, the story is less about a girl and her super squirrel and more about Flora and her parents. She shares a special relationship with both that Khan and Copeland instill in certain moments that mostly work out the emotional core (though Flora repeats Tony Stark Avengers: Endgame by telling her father “I love you 3000” just feels like persistent corporate synergy). The CGI Squirrel offers some cuteness and laughter, but it’s an aid to the movie at best, and at worst, its chases drag on. Still, Lawler sparkles her scenes – her dynamic with Hannigan and Schwartz sparkles – Flora & Ulysses sometimes transcends its mild hijinks into cute and heartwarming family dynamics.
Flora & Ulysses will be available to stream on February 19th on Disney Plus.