Synopsis – The adventures of a young girl and a squirrel with superpowers.
My Take – For many years, Disney held the beacon for producing the best family films. Films that had an obvious charm about them, a surprising amount of wit in their construction, and a simple writing sensibility that often forced imaginative solutions to those problems.
The point is that they were sweet and comforting, the kind that were aimed both at kids and people who enjoyed little adventures, preferably with a fantasy element and an animal of some sort. However over the years, while the Home Entertainment department has continued to churn out similar material, their quality has simply gone from monotonous to lacking.
Gladly, this new Disney+ release helmed by director Lena Khan (The Tiger Hunter) and written by Brad Copeland (Arrested Development) is a massive return to form, a perfect film for the whole family to watch, right on the lines of last year’s The One and Only Ivan adaption.
Based on the 2013 book, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by popular children’s author Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux), director Khan‘s adaption not only hits all the right beats with enough humor and action to please all but the most cynical of viewers, but also manages to find some resonant, intelligent things to say about some pretty grown-up topics. The characters are memorable, relatable and well-cast, the action is tightly-paced, and you care about everyone involved.
While the film has been promoted as a superhero tale surrounding a squirrel, at its core it is a sweet family story, bolstered by young actress Matilda Lawler’s sharp performance and the meta-textual references to other Disney properties. Sure, the film won’t be winning any awards, but it is without a doubt a definite charmer with a cross-generational appeal.
The story follows Flora (Matilda Lawler), a 10 year old self-proclaimed cynic, whose love for the fantastical world of comic book superheroes is in the middle of a re-evaluation, mainly due to her parents’ struggling marriage. Her father, George (Ben Schwartz), a comic artist whose creation, a superhero dubbed Incandesto, never took off despite his most sincere efforts, leaving him in a despondent state. Once he moved out, her mother, Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), a once-prolific romance novelist, also began struggling with a writer’s block, leaving her unsure especially about their financial stability.
However, Flora’s life takes a drastic turn when she rescues a squirrel from her neighbor’s out-of-control robot vacuum and discovers that he has super powers, who not only displays super strength, and flying abilities, but also understands humans and types poems. Naming him Ulysses, Flora sets out to determine his 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 following a hysteria-induced incident. However, a public incident attracts the attention of Miller (Danny Pudi), an animal control officer, who has a bad history with rabies infested squirrels.
Here, director Khan puts a family-friendly spin on the superhero genre, finding humor in all of its tropes with laugh-out-loud moments for all ages. For example, Flora imagines her father’s own super powered creations zooming around at times, making reference to various well-known superhero stories and oftentimes paying tribute to all superheroes, but mostly belonging to Marvel, including their newest acquisitions through the 20th Century deal, which gives viewers sufficient reasons to laugh hard and thoroughly enjoy themselves.
But without a doubt, it is Flora and Ulysses’s bond that drives the story along and helps create a lot of emotion, making everyone watching wanting a squirrel for a friend. A factor which makes even some of the unoriginal jokes tolerable and the physical comedy amusing like animals slapping into and then sliding off glass.
However, in the end, the story isn’t just about a girl and her super-squirrel so much as it is about Flora and her parents, with whom she shares a special relationship, which director Khan conveys in specific moments, which mostly flesh out the emotional crux. By conveying how it is easier to draw a superhero than to act like one, the film explains the marital strife the parents are facing.
While it, may sound vague enough to derail the film, refreshingly, it doesn’t ever talk down to its audience. She also does an admirable job balancing the sunniness with the forlorn challenges. Though the ending driven by Miller’s light villain gets a little too zany, but the core before it is tight and sound.
The CGI is well done too. The character design is on point, they actually found a way to make a rodent look cute. The animation is also on point as is the integration of the CGI elements with the real, physical world. Except maybe for the psychotic cat named Mr. Claus, who looks like a straight cartoon in a scene in which he attacks Miller. However, with a film filled with scenes of the characters making messes and causing chaos, it laughably works!
A major factor for that is the excellent cast, especially Matilda Lawler, whose performance commands the film. The young up and coming actress delivers her lines with such an assured authority that it never feels over-exaggerated or clunky, as some young Disney protagonists can be. Throughout the film’s 95 minutes you root for her as she nails both the humor and the emotional scenes excellently. In other roles, Ben Schwartz is his usual funny self and Alyson Hannigan is fantastic and hilarious as well, while Benjamin Evan Ainsworth (The Haunting of Bly Manor) sportingly pulls off the case of hysterical blindness, despite the distracting baggage of making a child actor pretend to be blind for kicks.
Danny Pudi hilariously pulls off a character which is very reminiscent of a classic Disney family film villain and makes for worthy adversary to Ulysses and the Buckman family. In smaller roles, Kate Micucci, Bobby Moynihan and Anna Deavere Smith are also good. On the whole, ‘Flora and Ulysses’ is a hilarious yet heartwarming family film that is both touching and charming.
Directed – Lena Khan
Rated – PG
Run Time – 95 minutes