Striking a successful balance between a divorce drama, a feel-good family comedy, and the origin story of a superhero squirrel, is an admirable achievement! Flora & Ulysses director Lena Khan gained attention with her crowdfunded debut The Tiger Hunter (2016), a quirky rom-com she also wrote, and for her sophomore feature she’s backed by Disney and working with a screenplay by Brad Copeland, adapting Kate DiCamillo’s much-loved children’s novel. And while treating the emotional core of the source material with respect, they weren’t averse to significantly reworking it.
Lonely 10-year-old Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler) is going through a difficult time with her parents’ recent separation. Her father, George (Ben Schwartz), had pinned all his hopes on a career as a comic-book creator but failed to find a publisher. Her mother, Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), once a successful romance author, has now lost her mojo for relationships both real and imagined. Flora gives up the escapism of superhero comic-books because, “the problem with superheroes is, they never show up in real life.”
She’s adrift and, instead, turns to her newly discovered cynic’s guide to life, Terrible Things Can Happen to You, with its central tenet of “Do not hope. Observe.” What she observes around her is the harsh reality of failure, fading dreams and dwindling hopes. We don’t dwell on that for too long, however, as her new worldview is soon challenged when she successfully resuscitates a seemingly dead squirrel, sucked up by the neighbour’s runaway Ulysses 2000 robot vacuum cleaner. In the tradition of films where a child finds an animal in need and realises it’s mutual (is that a recognised sub-genre?) she’s not allowed to keep the creature and must nurse it back to health in secret. Flora soon cheers up once she notices her furry friend exhibiting unusual, un-squirrel-like behaviour, such as typing poetry… and flying. And so she concludes his resurrection has imbued him with superpowers.
Matilda Lawler is a revelation in the lead. For such a young newcomer to, pretty much, carry the entire film, is a big ask. But then again, who better to play a sparky 10-year-old than an actual 10-year-old who brings a brightness and verve to every scene she graces. She’s certainly a young actress to keep an eye on growing up. Her recurring narration helps us get to know Flora a bit better and lends insight into her family dynamic as, sometimes, a child can see the underlying simplicity when adults over-complicate matters. Lawler has only appeared in a couple of small parts, most notably in The Block Island Sound (2020) alongside her father, Matthew Lawler—best known for his role as Agent Gabe Clements in the ABC TV series The Family (2016).
Her child co-star, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, who made an impression as Miles in last year’s The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) miniseries, also turns in a far more understated and quirky performance as William, a boy who’s been sent to live with a neighbour while recovering from a bout of temporary ‘hysterical blindness’. As he builds trust with Flora, he reveals his backstory and we eventually learn the cause of his unusual psychological affliction.
Of course, the real star is Ulysses the super-squirrel; ever chipper, always hungry, and occasionally heroic. The furry fellow is brought to life by a high-calibre VFX team under the supervision of Daryl Sawchuk, who recently coordinated the visuals of Black Panther (2018) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). This time, he faced the additional challenge of disseminating the animation, compositing and post-production work under COVID-19 remote working rules. His team are veterans of several superhero blockbusters and I, for one, can imagine how refreshing they must have found stepping out of the Marvel bubble with Ulysses! Though Flora does namedrop Wolverine and Silver Surfer…
The expressive, near-speaking rodent chatter of Ulysses is vocalised by veteran voice actor John Kassir, who did a similarly wonderful wordless performance as Eliot in Pete’s Dragon (2016). He’s probably best known for the distinctive, much impersonated voice of The Crypt Keeper in the Tales from the Crypt franchise and, among a couple of hundred other voice credits, he’s currently Pete Puma on New Looney Tunes.
For fans of the underrated, often overlooked art of voice acting, there’s also the added bonus of Kate Micucci as Rita, a waitress in the donut diner where George takes Flora in an attempt to re-establish their father-daughter bond. One thing leads to another and soon the diner is all but destroyed as Ulysses, initially, fails to master the power of flight. Micucci’s been the voice of Scooby-Doo’s Velma Dinkley for the last six years or so. Here she’s joined by her fellow Duck Tales (2017-2021) voice cast member Danny Pudi (Community) as animal control operative Miller, who misidentifies the erratic squirrel’s behaviour as symptomatic of rabies.
The deranged animal-catcher is the least appealing element to be added by Brad Copelend. It’s a blatant retread of so many precursors. Christopher Walken took things to a more ridiculous level as the exterminator in Mouse Hunt (1997). Then there’s Trumper (Omid Djalili), the well-equipped animal containment operative from Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), and the vindictive Chuck (John Cassini) in A Dog’s Way Home (2019)—probably the best of the bunch. Though I also retain great affection for the original Lady and the Tramp (1955) with its menacing, shadow-faced ‘dog-catcher’ that may be the original template.
While Pudi’s fine in the role, the obsessed-but-ineffectual animal control guy stands out as such a well-worn cliché among an otherwise unusual set of characters. In this example he’s given a cursory backstory to explain his vindictive streak, having been demoted for failure to catch a suspected rabid squirrel in the past.
But did the film really need a clear-cut human villain when the book didn’t? Perhaps every superhero needs a nemesis and Ulysses’s major opposition in the book had been Mister Claws, a psychotic cat. Here, the murderous moggy is pitted against Miller instead, resulting in moments of OTT hilarity and some nice film references thrown in for those adults watching. Look out for feline homages to Alien (1979) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Miller’s the catalysts (excuse me, I punned) for much of the movie’s more slapstick mayhem, which I’m sure will delight the younger viewers. Without his woefully inaccurate shooting of tranquiliser darts, we wouldn’t be treated to some of Ben Schwartz fine physical comedy…
Adding Miller may seem like a mistake on Copeland’s part, but the writer’s also responsible for expanding the role of George, which is a definite plus, and introduces the central thread of his failed comic-book career and explains where Flora’s love of superheroes originated. In the absence of her father, she had been kept company by his characters (The Mighty Condor, Shobo the Homeless Warrior, and the Amazing Incandesto) as her imaginary friends.
I’ve loved Alyson Hannigan since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), so it’s great to see her proving she can still combine convincing emotion and effective comedy. Here she’s in the mother role and casting her opposite Schwartz really works, as both turn in underplayed, unorthodox renderings of marital conflict. It’s far more subtle that the usual Acting 101 angst and tension. The hints of personalities that spread beyond the slices of their lives, that we’re served on screen, make them all the more engaging. Copeland keeps things clear and simple but rarely misses an opportunity to twist their dialogue to make it funnier, or at least a little more interesting than it needs to be.
Flora & Ulysses ends up being a satisfying family movie that finds a pleasing balance between uplifting comedy and emotionally grounded drama. Khan directs with a light touch and seems to bring out the best in her cast. She never lets the potentially ‘soapy’ human interest get in the way of the fun and avoids the ‘dysfunctional family’ shorthand that can really drag. Whilst the Buckman family think they’re dysfunctional, the audience can tell that, really, they’re not… and all it took was a super-squirrel to shake things up and bring them back to their senses. Of course, if you want to get a bit more intellectual, the squirrel is a metaphor of Flora’s hidden feelings and also represents her sense of simple wonder and its potential to brighten-up the corners of a more complicated world we construct as adults.
Flora & Ulysses is not one for cynics. However, “Don’t hope. Observe” turns out to be good advice after all…. because we learn that what you observe, really depends on where you look.
USA | 2021 | 95 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Lena Khan.
writer: Brad Copeland (based on the children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo).
starring: Matilda Lawler, Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Anna Deavere Smith, Danny Pudi, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Janeane Garofalo & Kate Micucci.