When I look at the squirrels in my back yard I waver between thinking that they are cute, agile, bushy-tailed critters and ultra-pesky and persistent bird-feeder raiders. I have never thought of them as amazing superheroes that can right all the wrongs in the world. Until now. Disney’s delightful new family comedy-adventure “Flora and Ulysses,” which begins streaming exclusively on Disney+ this Friday, February 19, has permanently changed my way of thinking.
Based on a Newbery Award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo (“Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures”), the film follows Flora Buckman, a 10-year-old girl coping with a family situation that has been turned on its head. Her romance-novelist mother and comic book-artist father have separated, causing her to question how much of a role hope should play in the life of a young cynic whose main reference book is a comic called “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!”
Flora’s life takes a decided turn for the better when her neighbor’s runaway vacuum cleaner accidentally sucks up a hapless squirrel and she manages to resuscitate it. The resurrected squirrel, who Flora dubs Ulysses, immediately begins to exhibit super-human powers, which leads the unlikely pair to embark on an incredibly heart-warming adventure that will find you alternately sniffling and laughing out loud.
Flora’s first big hurdle is to convince her father George that Ulysses is special. The down-on-his-luck dad, who has been unable to sell his idea for a glowing superhero called Incandesto, is at first skeptical… until he witnesses Ulysses in action.
But as Flora notes early in the story, “All superheroes come to us with a purpose… to save those in need… But they never show up in the real world.”
Yet Ulysses is there, and he’s super, and he’s real. So what is the main purpose that Super Ulysses must fulfill?
To those of us watching, it’s clear: Ulysses is there to fix this broken family.
Once George buys into Ulysses as “Marvel material”, the next step is to convince his estranged wife of the super squirrel’s uniqueness. Phyllis, who is overwhelmed with crippling writer’s block and a looming deadline, proves to be a tougher sell. Even seeing the note the “squirtel” leaves in her antique typewriter fails to convince her at first, though she is eventually won over.
But life always throws you a curve and Ulysses and the Buckmans’ path to happiness encounters a few stumbling blocks. The squirrel’s over-the-top antics attract the wrong sort of attention, including that of Animal Control, which mistakes Ulysses’ super powers for rabies and begins a search for the potentially sick critter.
With “the law” after them, and the aid of a friendly doctor and hysterically blind young neighbor, the Buckmans and Ulysses struggle to find their way back to each other. Yes, they break some rules and cause mayhem along the way, but they gradually arrive at the best possible ending, not without some tears.
The perfectly cast ensemble elevates this story with even more heart than the book started out with. Young Matilda Lawler imbues Flora with an intelligence and wisdom well beyond her 10 years without making her seem too precocious. Even as she utters cute little comic-book style epithets like “Holy Bagumba!” and (my favorite) “Holy unanticipated occurrences!” Lawler (who has already worked on Broadway!) is wholly believable.
Alyson Hannigan, as mom Phyllis, seems tailor-made to play the lollipop-loving novelist, unable to write about romance while her own is on the rocks. Television audiences familiar with Hannigan from her comedic turns in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “How I Met Your Mother” will not be surprised to find her in cringey situations like the awkward greeting she gives her estranged husband or at her hysterical reaction to her daughter’s new over-achieving pet.
Ben Schwartz, well-known to Disney audiences as the voice of Dewey from the beloved animated series DuckTales, gets a chance to play a fairly straight and ultimately rather heroic role as George, Flora’s down-on-his-luck dad. While his comic-book hero Incandesto fuels Flora’s imagination, and helps her find her way, George’s unwavering support for his daughter and his wife make him as much a superhero as his creation.
Playing against type is another DuckTales alum, Danny Pudi, who features as the film’s animal control agent/bad guy, Miller. As Pudi noted in a virtual press conference before the film’s release, the role gave him a chance to stretch his comedy chops by casting him as a “twirly-moustache” type evil villain with lots of physical comedy. Luckily, Pudi noted ironically, he has been attacked by a few animals, so the scenes in which he encounters a cantankerous cat and a mob of squirrels were fairly easy for him to play.
And what can I say about Ulysses the squirrel? He is fierce and endearing, yet so realistic and natural that I would be hard-pressed to distinguish him from the many, many squirrels who populate my back yard. Yes, I know he is (mostly) computer-generated, but from the outrageously funny scenes where Ulysses leaves his indelible mark on an unsuspecting donut shop and its clientele to the destruction of the Buckmans’ dinner table, it’s hard to not love such a rambunctious and continuously ravenous rodent. As I noted at the outset, he has forever changed my opinion of the species.
I know it may sound trite, but this movie truly has something for everyone — whether you are a kid or an adult. Looking for a sweet story with a lot of heart? Check. Looking for some light entertainment that will leaving you laughing? Check. Are you a comic book fan? There are lots of clear references here for you, from the obvious Marvel heroes mentioned at the beginning of the film to the superhero poses Ulysses strikes whenever he lands after a fantastic leap. Are you a Disney fan? Or more specifically, a DuckTales fan? You get the most treats — the film is littered with DuckTales “easter eggs” for you to find, which director Lena Khan asserts was intentional, seeing as a big portion of the show’s cast (the aforementioned Schwartz and Pudi, along with Bobby Moynihan and Kate Micucci) are present.
“Flora & Ulysses,” which also stars Anna Deavere Smith, Benjamin Evans Ainsworth and Janeane Garofolo, was directed by Lena Khan with a screenplay by Brad Copeland.
I know this may come as a surprise, but HOLY BAGUMBA! I truly enjoyed “Flora & Ulysses” and am sure that I will be rewatching it again (and again) with my family.
Disney’s “Flora & Ulysses” will be available exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) beginning February 19, 2021.