The Disney Plus original movie Flora & Ulysses is a story about a broken family learning to understand each other again. But that isn’t what the movie’s trailer promised: it focuses almost entirely on the shenanigans of a superpowered squirrel.
That squirrel doesn’t end up commanding as much of the movie as the trailers suggest. In fact, if Flora & Ulysses were lighter on the squirrel antics, the family comedy from director Lena Khan (Tiger Hunter) and screenwriter Brad Copeland (Arrested Development) actually might work better. The heart of the film is 10-year-old self-proclaimed cynic Flora (Matilda Lawler), who’s caught up in her parents’ financial and marital problems, and just trying to make sense of the world.
The core of Flora & Ulysses is a sweet family story, bolstered by Lawler’s sharp performance. But it gets bogged down by animal-chase capers and metatextual references to Disney properties. Still, it’s heartwarming and charming enough to support its message of family coming together and moving forward.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Flora & Ulysses]
Based on the book of the same name by popular children’s author Kate DiCamillo (who also wrote Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux), Flora & Ulysses follows Flora, the daughter of a struggling comic book artist (Ben Schwartz) and a once-prolific romance novelist (Alyson Hannigan). Flora once believed in superheroes, but her parents’ struggling marriage has forced her to re-evaluate her relationship with hope and idealism. That is, until she rescues a squirrel from a runaway vacuum cleaner and discovers he has super powers.
The squirrel — which Flora names Ulysses after the brand of vacuum cleaner that nearly kills him — has super-strength and some limited flying ability. He not only understands humans, he writes poetry using Flora’s mom’s typewriter. Flora decides she needs to figure out Ulysses’ 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. But bringing the squirrel out in public attracts the attention of an animal control officer (Danny Pudi). Cue “running away with a squirrel fugitive” antics.
Those antics tonally distract from the rest of the movie. Pudi’s villain character feels shoehorned in to give the story a conflict that’s more concrete than a broken family learning to bond again. While there are moments of genuine emotion between animal-chase scenes — like when Flora shows up at her dad’s new supermarket job and tries to save him from his pedantic manager — the movie just features too much fruitless running around. Ulysses’ super powers don’t even add much to the story, since a lot of the chasing involves Flora, her father, or William stashing him somewhere. It’s telling that the power that gets the most plot weight and screen time is his ability to hash out rudimentary poems.
The one thing that makes the movie worth watching is Flora herself. Lawler’s performance commands the movie. A former idealist who disavowed any heroic notions after her father moved out, Flora already starts off as an interesting character, but Lawler makes her believable and spunky as well. She’s first introduced as she lists off some of her once-favorite superheroes, in a scene that feels like a gratuitous showcase of the previously Fox-owned Marvel heroes Disney recently acquired. Then she dumps a stack of her comic books in front of a clerk, ready to sell them because, as she puts it, heroes don’t exist in the real world. Lawler delivers her lines with self-assuredness that never feels over-exaggerated or clunky, as some young Disney protagonists can be. She keeps even the dullest scenes from being totally boring.
In the end, the story isn’t about a girl and her super-squirrel so much as it is about Flora and her parents. She shares a special relationship with both of them, which Khan and Copeland convey in specific moments, which mostly flesh out the emotional crux (though Flora echoing Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame by telling her dad, “I love you 3000” just feels like heavy-handed corporate synergy). The CGI squirrel offers some cuteness and laughs, but he’s auxiliary to the movie at best, and at worst, his chase sequences drag. Still, with Lawler commanding her scenes — her dynamic with Hannigan and Schwartz sparkles — Flora & Ulysses sometimes transcends its bland hijinks into cute and heartwarming family dynamics.
Flora & Ulysses will be available to stream on Disney Plus on Feb. 19th.