Flora & Ulysses (2021) Review

Unfairly buried beneath the avalanche of new content from Disney+’s launch of its new Star division, FLORA & ULYSSES deserves more of a fanfare, not just to announce the arrival of a brand-new bona fide superhero but also a whimsical and charming new family classic, directed with a breezily light touch by Lena Khan (THE TIGER HUNTER).

Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a 10-year-old self-confessed cynic who prefers her comic books to the company of friends and finds comfort in the costumed adventures as she adjusts to her parents’ recent divorce. When a chance encounter with a robot vacuum cleaner seemingly injures a friendly squirrel, Flora fears the worst. Instead, the Squirrel – whom Flora names Ulysses – not only makes a remarkable recovery but seems to have developed super powers. Determined to help him become the hero he is destined to be, Flora resolves to help Ulysses find his purpose.

Based on the children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo, there’s an air of frothy fantasy to the setting for FLORA & ULYSSES that’s hard to resist. Her impossibly eclectic house where she lives with her romance novelist mother (Alyson Hannigan) is a mischievous masterpiece of mise-en-scène, packing the screen with tiny details and clever touches that both support the sense of frivolity and underpin its gentle examination of superhero mythology and its deeper meaning to its young audience.

It combines elements of romantic comedy with the trappings of a classic children’s film, treating the latter with something of the knowing irony of the likes of SHREK. It’s in the CGI squirrel Ulysses, though, and the loveable rapport he develops with Flora that the film finds its heart. His earnest attempts to live up to Flora’s heroic ideals help her to tentatively put down her shield of cynicism and reengage with the world around her. Helping her in this journey are her estranged, ex-illustrator father (Ben Schwartz) and her new next door neighbour William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who suffers from hysterical blindness.

FLORA & ULYSSES indulges in layers of fantasy involving the comic books her father (Ben Schwartz) attempted to publish before becoming disillusioned and giving up and the heroes from those pages populate the world around her, surrogates for her parents in whom she’s lost a little faith. It weaves a degree of sweet, sly imagination into every scene and raises the vague possibility that Ulysses’ fantastic abilities may only be in Flora’s imagination.

It’s a smart, well put together movie with a host of quirky characters that manage to make the idea of a super-powered squirrel feel like its fits within this world. There are numerous Easter Eggs for those who enjoy spotting them with references to Marvel, Star Wars and DC littered throughout the adventure although it must have taken some restraint for the writers to have managed to make it through the whole movie without referencing The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. While not quite action-packed, there are more than a few fun sequences, a few laugh out loud moments and plenty of kid-friendly slapstick.

There’s a subplot involving a zealous animal control officer (Danny Pudi) that never quite works, trapped by an indecision on whether to go for a broader, zanier comedy or try for a credible threat and, in the end, managing to achieve neither.

Sweet and sentimental in just the right amounts, FLORA & ULYSSES was never destined for blockbuster success but there’s an unabashed wholesomeness in its inclusive and eclectic approach to showing the importance of family that feels both nostalgic and timely.

7/10


A version of this review was previously published on CineFlixDaily.com