Based on a best-selling children’s book, and debuting on Disney+ this week, is a tale of a comic book obsessed preteen named Flora and her adventures with a squirrel named Ulysses, who might just be a superhero. With Disney being the parent company, many have surmised that this might be a Squirrel Girl origin story, but while Flora does share a comic book obsession with her father, the film is actually based on the book Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. And Flora & Ulysses’ only connection to the MCU turns out to be the comic books Flora treasures.
10-year-old would be cynic Flora’s (Matilda Lawler) life is disrupted by the sudden arrival of Ulysses (voiced by John Kassir), a squirrel whom she performs CPR on after he’s been sucked into a Roombaesque self-propelled vacuum. After his near-death experience, Ulysses starts exhibiting new abilities that allow him to communicate with Flora through an old typewriter her mother, beleaguered romance novelist Phyllis Buckman (Alyson Hannigan), is using for her next novel.
However, Phyllis is in a major writer’s block due to the recent separation from her husband George (Ben Shwartz), a failed comic book artist who Flora still idolizes. Flora must turn to George, now working a dead-end job in another part of town, along with her new neighbor William Spiver (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who suffers from hysterical blindness, as the attempt to keep Ulysses safe from Miller (Danny Pudi), an obsessed animal control agent, a grouchy cat named Mr. Claws, and other threats.
Flora & Ulysses could have easily fallen into the same old trap, becoming like a lot of the disposable fluff that usually populates theaters this time of year (pre-CoVid) that is merely designed to separate parents from their money and kids likely forget about shortly after leaving the theater. But the script for Flora & Ulysees is a bit smarter than that. Credit to the filmmakers for making a film about a very adult and sometimes scary proposition, parents separating, without dumbing down the proceedings – even if the majority of the film is told from the child’s perspective. While the end result may not be the biggest shocker for anyone, the film doesn’t just give the result away either. It makes the characters learn and eventually earn it.
The story requires Flora to be an astute comic fan. I bring this up because Bobby Moynihan’s little comic book store owner cameo is just there to accuse her of being out in place in his shop and as a comic book fan in general. But she can back up her words, and it’s nice to see her belong within a typically male-dominated medium.
Speaking of cameos, other than the aftermentioned Moynihan, Flora & Ulysses packs in some other familiar faces in the background as well, from the always delightful Kate Miccuci, a nearly unrecognizable Janeane Garofalo, to a familiar face for us Canadians with Nancy Robertson from Corner Gas. But most of the heavy lifting is left to young Matilda Lawler, who proves that she is more than able to carry the load. Her turn as a Flora is imminently watchable, as she radiates wisdom beyond her years.
Schwartz and Hannigan do solid work here too with some touchy subject manner that could have fallen to melodrama but doesn’t. And Ainsworth manages to elicit some laughs as the comedic foil. Only Danny Pudi seems out of place here, playing a paper-thin ‘bad guy’ with little motivation other than to pull goofy faces and collect a check. But this has a lot to do with the way the character is written as well.
The film is not without its issues though. For as excellent and realistic a job the filmmakers accomplish with Ulysses, Mr. Claws comes off as cartoony and unrealistic during many of his sequences, a sadly poor CGI creation that never reaches a single point where it can be taken seriously. There’s also a fairly noticeable plot point. There’s a story within George’s job which the film takes 10+ minutes to flush out. But that plot point just ends abruptly without a reasonable attempt at a resolution.
Flora & Ulysses may not break the mold when it comes to films aimed at the pre-teen market, but it also doesn’t talk down to them in any way either. A capable and engaging lead performance, an adorable squirrel, and capable direction from director Lena Khan all add up to a film you can enjoy with the whole family and feel good afterward. But for the last time, this film is NOT about THAT Squirrel Girl! Marvel will just have to deal with that on their own.
- Rated: G
- Genre: Family, Family Drama, super hero
- Release Date: 2/19/2021
- Directed by: Lena Khan
- Starring: Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Bobby Moynihan, Danny Pudi, Janeane Garofalo, John Kassir, Kate Miccuci, Matilda Lawler, Nancy Robertson
- Produced by: Gil Netter, Jennie Lee, Jim Powers
- Written by: Brad Copeland, Kate DiCamillo
- Studio: Disney