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‘Flora & Ulysses’ not a tough nut to crack

February 22, 2021
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Superheroes have spent the past decade-plus as the primary cinematic currency of the land. Whether you enjoy those films or not, you can’t deny their primacy in the movie world. And while the main beneficiaries of that primacy are the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, there are other, less obvious projects that are adopting their own super-angles.

Take Disney’s “Flora & Ulysses,” currently available on Disney+. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s 2013 children’s novel, the film – directed by Lena Khan from a screenplay by Brad Copeland – takes a very different, much … smaller leap into the superhero realm. How small?

How about the size of a squirrel?

That’s the deal – a 10-year-old girl teamed up with a superpowered squirrel, all in the context of a story about the struggles of family and fitting in. It sounds ridiculous – because it is – but it’s no less engaging because of it. Frankly, it’s charming and quite sweet. Plus, it has a wildly overqualified cast, resulting in a movie that is significantly better than the tossed-off throwaway project that it easily could have been.

Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler, “The Block Island Sound”) is a 10-year-old girl who loves superheroes, thanks largely to her affection for the work of her father George (Ben Schwartz, “Sonic the Hedgehog”), a struggling comic book artist whose claim to fame (such as it is) is the character Incandesto.

Flora’s also a self-styled cynic, due largely to her attitudes regarding the marital struggles between her dad and her mom Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan, “You Might Be the Killer”), a once-lauded romance novelist dealing with a bad case of writer’s block.

One day, Flora sees that a neighbor’s robot vacuum is running amok through the yard. As she tries to help corral the machine, it inadvertently knocks a squirrel from a tree and sucks it up. Flora is able to save the critter, but it has been changed by its experience – the squirrel is sentient and may have other abilities. Flora names him Ulysses, after the brand name of the vacuum.

(This is where Flora also meets her neighbor’s nephew William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, TV’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor”), a boy her age staying with his aunt because he is apparently suffering from hysterical blindness. Yes, really.)

But when Ulysses gets loose in a local donut diner and displays the breadth of his abilities to Flora and her dad, the heat is turned up. A waitress named Rita (Kate Micucci, “I Used to Go Here”) calls in the authorities – specifically, an animal control officer with a squirrel vendetta named Miller (Danny Pudi, “The Argument”) who will stop at nothing to bring this creature to justice.

Together, Flora and Ulysses must overcome the forces conspiring against them, whether they be rogue animal control officers, evil cats or familial uncertainty. While neither one can fully handle it all on their own, when they pair up, they make one heck of a team.

“Flora & Ulysses” is exactly what you should expect from a live-action (well … mostly) Disney offering. This is a movie that is light and fun, with even the potentially darker stuff treated with a levity that makes it all seem OK – key for when you introduce those elements into a kid-oriented movie. It’s not a particularly complicated film, but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in sheer goofiness. Again – just what you want from a kid’s movie.

Look, this isn’t some kind of paradigm-shifting project. It’s an amiable, goofy movie for kids. And in its refusal to pretend otherwise, it actually winds up being quite an agreeable viewing experience – one that will likely prove at the very least tolerable and likely rather entertaining for the adult viewers out there. I mean, it’s a squirrel with superpowers, people – don’t pretend like you aren’t a little curious.

Director Khan displays a light touch throughout. The set pieces and superhero antics are all suitably silly, while the more sensitive aspects of the narrative are treated respectfully, but gently. Nothing preachy or overwrought here – just a super-squirrel doing super stuff.

In terms of the cast, this group feels a touch overqualified, though it seems clear that pretty much everyone working on this movie is having a blast. Lawler proves more than capable of handling her spot as the film’s focal point; sweet and charming with that particular blend of innocence and seriousness that works wonderfully in this sort of film. Hannigan and Schwartz are both having a good time – Hannigan shrill and put-upon, Schwartz goofy and, well … put-upon. He gets more of the slapstick moments, but they both get their laughs. I’ll happily concede that I’m not entirely sure why there’s a hysterically blind (and inexplicably British?) kid here, but Ainsworth makes it work. It’s weird, but I dig it.

Meanwhile, you’ve got Danny Pudi going for it as the bad guy. He’s actually an ideal kiddie villain, in that when he aims for sinister, he just comes off as ridiculous. If he had a mustache, he’d twirl it. Micucci has a couple of fun scenes as the waitress. We also get a Janeane Garofolo cameo as Phyllis’s agent and a turn from Bobby Moynihan as a comic shop owner named, hand to God, Stanlee.

(Also worth noting that with Schwartz, Pudi and Moynihan, we have all three of Donald’s nephews from “Ducktales.” Throw in Micucci, who voices Webby, and you’ve got quite a collection of adventuresome young ducklings.)

“Flora & Ulysses” is the finest kind of family-friendly fare. The film isn’t stingy with the silliness, but also allows room for some sincerity as well. It’s got a lovely, thoughtful story and some talented performers enjoying themselves; it will engage kids and parents alike. Not an all-timer, but a pretty darned good diversion. If nothing else, it’s a welcome reminder to the youngsters out there that heroes come in all types of package – big and small.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 February 2021 09:10

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