Don’t let self-professed cynic Flora Buckman fool you: This savvy 10-year-old still has a taste for magic underneath her world-weary outer shell. Tucked alongside all her distaste for things like “hope” — ew — the precocious kiddo (a charming Matilda Lawler) can’t quite shake her obsession with all things comic book and, more precisely, all things superheroic. Recent life events have dinged her optimism a bit, and while it may be easier to move through the world filled with nothing but suspicion, that only means that when good things do happen, they feel really, really good.
Such is the lesson of Lena Khan’s good-hearted “Flora & Ulysses,” a tonally faithful adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s novel of the same name. Screenwriter Brad Copeland has altered some of the book’s dramas, though the overall look and feel of the story remains: Gussied up with the antics of an animated superhero squirrel, it’s really about facing deeply human challenges head on. It’s a strong fit for Disney+ and its fledgling original film slate, which traffics in younger-skewing offerings with important lessons for the little ones. So far, it’s seen mixed results. For every charmer like “Stargirl” or “The One and Only Ivan,” there’s a “Safety” or a “Godmothered” (or, heaven forbid, an “Artemis Fowl”) there to temper the Mouse House’s original streaming quality.
“Flora & Ulysses” falls firmly into the former category: an inventive, sweet story filled with classic storytelling beats and enough new fluff to appeal to a wide audience. Again, we’re talking animated superhero squirrel, and he’s not even the main attraction here.
Flora dedicated her young life to cynicism with good reason. Her creatively minded parents, George (Ben Schwartz) and Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), are burned out in their careers and in their marriage. Romance novelist Phyllis can’t find the spark, and her beloved “Jack and Rose” award (so named for the love-crossed heroes of “Titanic”) only serves to remind her of all the (literal) flames she’s lost. Comic-book creator (of course!) George has all but given up on his dreams of building new heroes. The Buckmans are newly separated, clearly still in love with each other, and it’s Flora who is taking the brunt of their emotional upheaval. (Her favorite book is “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!,” part guidebook, part terrifying look into the heart of life’s many darknesses.)
Enter Ulysses: a tiny squirrel, ingloriously sucked up by a rogue vacuuming robot, and literally spat back into Flora’s eager hands. What if, superhero expert Flora wonders, the trauma of the robot disaster has gifted the incredibly cute, accident-prone squirrel his own powers? Believably rendered in solid CGI — other animals do appear in the film, including a very angry cat, but none look quite so real as the young squirrel — Ulysses promptly captures Flora’s secretly tender heart, and the audience’s to boot.
Set in the anonymously suburban world of so many Disney outings, Flora has plenty going on beyond the possibly super-powered squirrel hiding in her treehouse. There’s her parents’ relationship and their lingering professional worries (if nothing else, Flora is believably averse to artistic careers), followed by the introduction of new neighbor William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who is suffering from “hysterical blindness” and has his own deep family secrets. There’s also the inevitable mean game warden (Danny Pudi) who has set his sights on Ulysses, who he (somewhat understandably) believes is rabid, not special. Lawler, an appealing young star, grounds the film’s wackier elements and lends sweetness to circumstances that often threaten to turn nutty for the hell of it.
The adventures that follow are mostly predictable, from attempting to outsmart the warden to Flora’s quest for Ulysses’ greater purpose (this involves writing poetry and flying; he’s a deeply talented squirrel, to be sure). All are couched in the kind of lessons endemic to young audience-focused fare, but “Flora & Ulysses” approaches them with enough affection to feel fresh. Copeland’s script gently moves attention away from the book’s ostensible villain (Phyllis, awkward) and into less thorny territory, but Khan and Copeland still seem eager to test some heady ideas.
Phyllis and George’s problems, from their struggling marriage to their stalled-out careers, might sound like adult conflicts, but Khan’s film understands how parents’ issues inevitably trickle down to their kids. William transcends the role of quirky sidekick and gets the time to explore his own tough stuff, aided by a softening Flora and the “magic” of Ulysses. Every kid might dream about having a superhero friend (a squirrel, even better!), but “Flora & Ulysses” offers that movie-ready plot alongside the undeniable power of being understood (something even animated squirrels appear to desire).
We can’t all have a supeheroic squirrel to help find our own purposes in life, but “Flora & Ulysses” posits that we don’t need one — just a willingness to welcome their special kind of magic, in whatever shape it may take. Cynics, beware, “Flora & Ulysses” is coming for you.
“Flora & Ulysses” starts streaming on Disney+ on Friday, February 19.
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