AT THE MOVIES: Flora & Ulysses doesn’t so much soar as it does agreeably glide

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
"Flora & Ulysses" (Disney+. Feb. 19): Matilda Lawler stars as Flora, a girl who adopts a squirrel with superpowers and names him Ulysses in the Disney family comedy.

Disney+’s most buzzy programming has been live-action TV shows set in the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes. But the streaming service has also been delivering original live-action movies that are in the style and tone of classic live-action family movies from Disney. The Shaggy Dog, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Homeward Bound: The Journey Home, were the titles Disney was associated with before they were known for spending the GDP of a single country on every one of their theatrical films. The newest instance of Disney channeling their past is Flora & Ulysses, an adaptation of a Kate DiCamillo book of the same name by director Lena Khan.

Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo.

As this movie opens, ten-year-old Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a self-professed cynic. She’s given up comic books, hope, or anything remotely resembling joy in the wake of her parents (played by Alyson Hannigan and Ben Schwartz) separating. However, some of her old spark gets injected back into her life when stumbles upon a squirrel she names Ulysses. This is no ordinary critter, Ulysses has superpowers like flight and super-strength! She knows she has to protect this animal, a task that will end up involving her entire family. In the process, maybe Flora will rediscover all the wonders that have been in front of her eyes this whole.

Flora & Ulysses is perfectly pleasant but its charms don’t hit quite as effectively as they should. Part of this is due to how much of the film ties into Disney synergy. Flora & Ulysses is all too happy to show off all the movies and properties Disney owns, particularly Star Wars and Marvel characters. A movie about a kid remembering the importance of hope sounds neat. A movie where that same lesson is grounded in constant reminders of other Disney properties you can watch is much less neat. In the process, screenwriter Brad Copeland undercuts the squeaky-clean moralism of the production.

Then again, maybe all the heavy-handed corporate synergy would be easier to stomach if Flora & Ulysses felt a bit more distinctive. Too much of the movie just feels like a hodgepodge of past kids movies, like Danny Pudi’s animal control antagonist who seems to have arrived from an Air Bud movie. Extended slapstick gags, like an early joke involving Flora causing a chain reaction mess in a comic book store, will also come off as derivative even to the youngest viewers. A number of the wry quips in the script also feel both overly snarky and like they belong in a half-baked sitcom.

Despite these problems, Flora & Ulysses has its pleasant charms, many of them coming from what it doesn’t do compared to so many other live-action movies aimed at kids. For instance, Flora & Ulysses has the decency to run at a manageable length and take the time to slow down every now and then. Fart jokes are absent here, as is bathroom humor in general. The most unique personality traits, like the mom working as a romantic novelist, inspire some memorable gags. Under the solid direction of Lena Khan, the actors do uniformly fine work, particularly the lead child actor Matilda Lawson.

As for the film’s squirrel protagonist, the CGI used to render the squirrel Ulysses is well-realized while it was a smart choice to limit how anthropomorphized he is. There’s an elegant simplicity to his design and animation that’s welcome. Plus, squirrels are cute and Flora & Ulysses gets a lot of mileage out of that. I doubt even the most undemanding kids will go absolutely nuts for Flora & Ulysses, but there are worse ways for them to spend an afternoon. In its most charming moments, Flora & Ulysses provides lowkey fun. In its most glaringly underwhelming moments, though, it also proves how easily that tone can be disrupted.

Flora & Ulysses arrives on Disney+ on February 19.