I gotta say, the cynic in me considers many family comedies to be easy cash grabs of slapstick energy designed to pull in a few bucks for multi-billion dollar studios targeting the wallets of easily amused kids and their parents who want to shut them up for 2 hours. After all, from a business standpoint, for the low price of $40 million dollars, a micro-studio can easily make a profit by sticking Robert DeNiro on a trampoline and pelting him with dodgeballs without putting much thought or effort into the product itself. Most of the time they opt to prioritize the easy fart joke over a deeper story to keep kids entertained, and attempt to justify their existence with a broad, flimsy, insincere theme like “family”. But sometimes, uncommon as it might seem, there are family movies that end up succeeding at having their cake and eating it too. Disney’s Flora and Ulysses is one such movie.
At first glance, especially given the trailer, Flora and Ulysses seems like it’s going to be a cutesy, slapstick fest cut from a similar cloth as the aforementioned The War with Grandpa or the Alvin franchise. And truth be told, I’d be lying if I said those moments don’t exist in the movie – they do in spades. However, to my surprise, I was actually pleased to see there was a sincere attempt to use these aspects to ultimately convey a story about combating the cynicism that comes with unpleasant changes in life. At the end of the day, a cartoon superhero squirrel becomes a coping mechanism for a young girl and her family navigating the rough terrain that comes with an impending divorce. And that’s honestly a lot more mature than a Disney movie about a super-squirrel has any right to be.
The movie centers on the titular Flora, an imaginative, self-proclaimed 10-year old cynic, who lives with her mother (Alyson Hannigan), and has a particular penchant for comic books (and a heck of a Silver age collection for a kid of her age in 2021). Her father (Ben Schwartz) is living away from home, formalizing a divorce from his soon-to-be ex-wife, after suffering a career setback as a failed comic book writer/illustrator. Flora adores her father, and has inherited his love for superheroes, but, as a cynic, has closed herself off to the prospect of making friends or believing in hope. Along comes Ulysses, a squirrel who, after a brush with a mechanical Roomba-esque lawn vacuum, manifests special abilities and befriends Flora. Through the family’s shared affection for the little critter, and their shared goal of helping him find a purpose in the same way most superheroes have a purpose, they are able to start healing, moving forward, and re-evaluating their current outlooks and goals in life.
Overall the movie is cute. On a very superficial level, as a comic book fan myself, I appreciated the filmmakers’ desires to stay true to the spirit and optimism of silver age comics in terms of tone and reverence. You can see they had fun stylizing minor elements of the movie, like transition shots or brief exposition, using comic book aesthetics and artwork, but it also provides a hopeful tone that enhances the film’s theme about keeping hope alive during hard, cynical times. I also appreciated whenever they’d namedrop references to characters I love within the Marvel canon to convince you that Flora, as a character, really knows her stuff. That was honestly pretty cool, in a “member-berry” kind of way, but it also helps flesh out Flora’s character and allows us to connect to her relationship with her father. Another random thing I found cool from a very “nerdy” standpoint was the neat shout out to Ducktales fans, through the casting of all 4 of our favorite ducklings, Ben Schwartz (Dewey), Dani Pudi (Huey), Kate Micucci (Webby), and Bobby Moynihan (Louie) as various characters within the film. I’m not going to lie, that made me smile (especially in light of the sad news that the show’s officially ended, I’ll take what I can get!).
However, superficial Easter eggs aside, the movie rises and falls on the shoulders of newcomer Matilda Lawler, who is not only adorable, but a very talented young actress. Lawler’s debut here is funny, charming, and real, which allows you to care about Flora as if she was your own kid. She has excellent chemistry with Schwartz, who is also really fantastic, stepping out of his Jean Ralphio comfort zone to play a pretty cool dad. The character of George Buckman allows him to be sensitive, caring, funny, and sweet, but also sympathetic. Hannigan is also good and funny, going for something a bit broader than Schwartz, with a bit of “Lily” from later seasons of How I Met Your Mother. She has an especially great scene with the animated Ulysses midway through the movie. But naturally the star of the show, in addition to Lawler, is the adorable animation used to bring Ulysses to life. The effects here reminded me a lot of the Pip character from Enchanted, but the filmmakers were really able to give real personality and expression to the squirrel, making you fall for him the way the Buckmans do.
I also greatly appreciated the movie’s themes. It’s very timely to have a film teach kids about how to deal with hard times in their lives, during a time where cynicism is so easy to adopt. This makes things, not only relevant, but also pretty real. It’s easy enough for the film to frame it in the context of a child watching her parents separate, but based on the carefully selected lines from the film’s screenplay, it’s clearly trying to expand the message to current times we’re dealing with today. Any kids movie that’s able to provide a message like that should definitely be commended.
There are a few things about the film I wasn’t crazy about overall. Like I mentioned, I’m a bit too old to connect with the times the film attempts to go slapstick. Some scenes can be a bit cringeworthy for the wrong audience, such as a diner scene where Ulysses shows off his powers to George and Flora for the first time, or a car chase scene between Pudi’s animal control officer and the Buckmans. That said, I’m sure younger kids will find it funny and entertaining overall, and that’s what should really matter for those bits of the movie. In the same vein, given their supporting performances aren’t intended to be the focus of the movie, Pudi, Micucci, and Moynihan play their parts quite broadly and over-the-top. Naturally this isn’t meant to be an Oscar film, so it’s expected they’d lean into the kid-friendly natures of what a story with an animated super-squirrel demands. It’s cute overall, and good for kids, but may be a bit of an eye-roll for some adults.
Additionally, there’s a bit of a subplot involving The Haunting of Bly Manor’s Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, playing William, a neighbor to Flora with hysterical blindness, that ultimately gets lost in the shuffle. Ainsworth, who did a fantastic job in Bly Manor isn’t really able to keep up with Lawler’s moxie – partially due to his performance, and partially due to the writing for the character. Through the first half of the film, the performance is honestly a bit annoying, and you do gain a bit of sympathy for him as his backstory is unraveled much later in the movie, but it’s a bit overshadowed by the A-story that is the central Buckman family drama and Flora and Ulysses’ partnership. Unfortunately, while relevant to Flora’s ultimate evolution on opening herself up to friends, this admittedly was probably the one thing about the movie I felt wasn’t incredibly essential.
Overall though, this isn’t a movie that should be subject to cinematic deconstruction. This is an adorable kid’s movie with an animated super-squirrel and a genuinely sincere and optimistic message that is needed during cynical times like today. The slapstick elements will entertain kids, and the geeky elements and heart will ultimately give adults something to enjoy and relate to as well. For any silliness the film has, there’s a a surprising sense of realism and care on the surface as well that the movie really greatly benefits from, in conjunction with a charming breakout performance in Matilda Lawler, and equally as charming turns from Schwartz and Hannigan. And as such, for parents choosing something new to watch with their kids during COVID-times, you can do much worse than Disney’s very cute, heartwarming Flora and Ulysses.
Overall Score: B
Flora and Ulysses hits Disney+ this Friday, February 19th.