Flora & Ulysses is a fun and clever adaptation of the award-winning children’s book by famous author Kate DiCamillo. A cynical, friendless ten-year-old girl awakens the superhero powers of a brave squirrel after saving her from an accident. The film is full of CGI critter gags, but it’s the human characters and subtle humor that steal the show. Flora & Ulysses appeals to children with a level of sophistication rarely found in this genre. It gets a bit tedious in the last act, but has already convinced you with heartfelt kindness.
Flora Buckman, brilliantly played by Matilda Lawler, is a child who has lost hope. Her parents recently separated and they all have problems as a result. Flora’s mother, Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), is a writer-block writer. Her father George (Ben Schwartz) is a failed comic artist who could never provide for his family. Flora sells her beloved comic book collection. Superheroes are just stupid fantasies. The real world is tough and unforgiving. She has fully embraced the cynicism.
Flora changes her mind after the neighbour’s robotic vacuum cleaner vacuumed an unhappy squirrel. In a scene where I had to laugh out loud, Flora revives the nut-loving tree rodent. She names him “Ulysses” after the example of the flawed invention. When Phyllis makes a ridiculous effort to be inspired, Flora realizes that Ulysses can understand her. The squirrel then shows amazing skills. Flora tries to infer Ulysses’ superhero purpose, but ends up on the radar of an animal control officer who hates squirrels (Danny Pudi).
Every character has a quality that makes them humorous and lovable. Flora’s dark and defeatist outlook brightens as Ulysses brings her family back together. The squirrel doesn’t speak, but … drum roll please … can write poetry and arrange word tiles in succinct sentences. The cast reactions to Ulysses poetic endeavors are hysterical. Flora & Ulysses is much funnier than expected.
The film incorporates the visual style of the novel. Flora sees her story as a comic. She envisions her father’s superhero creations that follow the adventure. Comic panels are inserted between key scenes to accompany the action. This adds an inventive element to the flawless squirrel CGI. The production design, editing and visual effects are well done here. Director Lena Khan (The tiger hunter) shows significant skills in its second feature. In a technically complex film, she elicits a banner performance from her young lead.
Flora & Ulysses In the end, the creative juice runs out. It becomes tedious to do a 90 minute edit. A shorter cut would have bound the film more effectively, as the narrative wears off in the last ten minutes. I’m also excited to see how a supporting character is received. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth plays William Spiver, a boy who is “hysterically blind” from stress. The actor is good and quite funny, but his laughter comes at the expense of blindness. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes offense at this portrayal. Flora & Ulysses is a production by Walt Disney Pictures and Gil Netter. It will be available to stream exclusively on Disney + on February 19th.
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