Flora and Ulysses is a bright Disney family movie with a “turn that frown upside down” message, lively performances, funny bits that are funny, a cute kid in the lead, fantastic supporting turns.
If it sounds like there’s a “but” coming, not a bit of it. The film provides its own corrective in the shape of Flora herself. “I’m a cynic,” says the ten-year-old (played by Matilda Lawler) who’s wise beyond her years and actually not cynical at all. She’s hurt – because her father (Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz) has left the family home and her mother Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) is struggling to write her latest romantic novel. Struggling because husband George, though she doesn’t know it, isn’t there.
George is like Flora – hurt at his failure to cut it as a creator of comic books, in particular of his own superhero character Incandesto, a figure so peripheral to the story that we can safely leave out all future mention of him, and maybe the film should have done too.
And then a squirrel falls into a robo-vacuum cleaner and Flora rescues him with some tiny CPR and a bit of mouth-to-mouth. This, it turns out, is the equivalent in superhero stories of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, the thing that turns the squirrel, now named Ulysses after the robo-vac, into a rodent with special abilities. He can understand what Flora is saying, can communicate by typing and his natural squirrel-y abilities have all been enhanced to the max. You’ll believe a squirrel can fly!
As Flora’s voiceover relates, there is an arc to superhero stories – the origin, the discovery of the new powers, the embracing of the new identity, the revelation to the world, the test (in the shape of an arch enemy) – all ticked off by Ulysses in a series of very Disney “darn those kids” scenes of domestic mayhem, well orchestrated by director Lena Khan, closely following Uncle Walt’s 1960s live-action playbook.
Ulysses the squirrel isn’t live action, of course, though by now the technology enabling animation and real people to co-exist in a frame is so well established that it’s no longer remarkable that they do – for reference, Ulysses has the solidity of a Paddington Bear, and many of his japes and scrapes are similar, though he can’t talk.
If Flora is now fighting for top billing with Ulysses, there are more characters to add to the mix. Including next-door-neighbour William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who has a prissy English accent and cannot see, thanks to an episode of “hysterical blindness” that is his own big ball of hurt waiting to be healed. Animal Control officer Miller (played by Danny Pudi, star of Khan’s feature debut, The Tiger Killer), also a “darn that animal” lift straight from the live-action Disneys of yore.
It’s funny, without strictly being a comedy. The humour exists mostly at the edges, like Ulysses’s constant pleadings to be fed, or the PA system announcement at the tech shed where George currently works – “all outdated tech now 50% off”. Or William (an inspired character) using echolocation and squeaking like a bat because he can’t see. Though when it does go for a full-throated laugh it’s often old-school physical comedy, like making a meal of getting a car door unlocked.
Alyson Hannigan – she of “band camp” American Pie – is now middle aged and playing the mother! Another way of saying that this film isn’t really targeted at me. I enjoyed it all the same, the excellent cast and the smooth, swift and skilful direction making light work of the comedy and the action and also skipping over emotional scenes that lie like landmines in breezy movies like this.
The screenplay struggles a bit with a basic problem – is this about Flora or the Ulysses? And also has to do one hell of a lot of tying up of loose ends in its last frenzied scenes, when it looks like every character – George and Phyllis, William and Flora, Officer Miller – needs an emotional fix so that white-picket Disney normality can be restored.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021