“Flora & Ulysses” deals with self-discovery, cynicism and squirrels

This Disney+ book adaptation is an all-ages treat with a superhero-themed spin.

Lydia Snow, Freelancer

Kate DiCamillo, two-time winner of the Newbery Medal for “distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” has a penchant for penning tales filled to the brim with wonder, emotion and imagination. Her 2013 novel “Flora & Ulysses” recently received a film adaptation for Disney+.

The 95-minute family flick optimally captures the essence of the original book, repackaging that essence for audiences in a way that the author herself considered impressive.

The first major release of UCLA film school graduate Lena Khan, “Flora & Ulysses” is a love letter to geek culture and superhero stories. Many plot developments and flashback scenes take the form of animated comic book storyboards, some of which include beloved Marvel characters. The script smacks with sarcasm, laying on copious references to “Star Wars,” “Dungeons & Dragons” and even “Titanic.” 

SQUIRREL GIRL

Ten-year-old Flora Buckman is a precocious, idiosyncratic young heroine who hearkens back to beloved children’s book protagonists such as Ramona Quimby or Matilda Wormwood. Flora’s first-person narration progresses the film’s story through a nonstop barrage of whimsical, blunt observations. A self-proclaimed cynic, Flora continuously unleashes dogmatic catchphrases such as “do not hope, only observe!” Newcomer Matilda Lawler, who appeared in 2019 Broadway play “The Ferryman,” brings a singular sense of free-spirited spunk to the role. 

Flora witnesses a freak accident of sorts when her neighbor’s robotic vacuum cleaner goes rogue and sucks up a squirrel. Somehow, the reddish-brown critter ends up with an intelligent mind and the ability to use a typewriter. Flora suddenly finds herself caring for a furry friend imbued with newfound superpowers. Reviving him with CPR and placing him in a shoebox, she dubs him Ulysses. “Every superhero has a purpose,” Flora, a die-hard comic book fanatic, tells Ulysses. She is utterly determined to help the squirrel forge his origin story and live out his true calling.

A NUTTY WORLD

As Flora helps Ulysses find his potential, she realizes that many people around her do not know how to find their own. The adults in Flora’s life chase fading dreams, wrestle with broken relationships and struggle to afford mortgage payments. The beauty of “Flora & Ulysses” is that it thoughtfully addresses the realities of life in a way that children can understand. Characters who are lost and overwhelmed learn to look for hope. 

Flora’s parents have recently separated, and she lives with her mother, Phyllis, an exhausted, unfulfilled romance novelist played by Allison Hannigan. Comedian and “Parks and Recreation” actor Ben Schwartz plays Flora’s father, George, an out-of-luck former comic book artist who finds his daily life far less picture-perfect than the superhero worlds he once created.

Flora helps her father reignite his imagination and passion for life as they bond together over their quest to help Ulysses fulfill his destiny. With their charmingly snarky interchanges, Schwartz and Lawler make an irresistible father-daughter duo. 

Ulysses begins to type mysterious poems, which serve as a framing device for the movie’s plot.

As the squirrel’s skills develop, the plot picks up, briskly moving from scene to scene of PG-rated action and mayhem. Many residents of Flora’s town do not understand her unorthodox, unpredictable pet, naturally leading to some comically catastrophic situations. 

HAPPY ENDINGS

With the heightened sense of situational perception that comes from being 10 years old, Flora discovers her own complex emotions, leading her to empathize with those of others. Over the course of the film, Flora befriends William Spiver, a soft-hearted elementary schooler with temporary blindness played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth. Encouraging William to open up about his insecurities and find courage, Flora helps him see through new eyes, both literally and figuratively.

“Flora & Ulysses” is a rare family movie that feels like it was actually made for families. Instead of talking down to children, it presents the world as they might imagine it, with a legitimate playfulness that does not feel forced.

The film is simple and sweet, blending a breezy plot and satisfying character beats with heaps of slapstick nonsense and a pinch of the profound. Ultimately, it is about discovering personal callings, finding joy in one’s existence and acknowledging the magic in one’s surroundings—which is always a welcome message. 

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