by Ben Hiett
Few films have pleasantly surprised me like “Flora and Ulysses,” a Disney Plus original quietly released in mid-February without much promotion. In many ways, such a humble release fits this movie well. “Flora and Ulysses” does not frantically vie for your attention with mile-a-minute jokes, frenetic plotting, and sugary, colorful characters. Instead, it is content to do what a kid’s movie should do: tell a good story with humor, heart, and, most importantly, originality.
Much of this originality is thanks to author Kate DiCamillo, who wrote the book the film is based on. Better known for her books “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “The Tale of Despereaux,” DiCamillo is a children’s author known for her unique sense of whimsical realism. “Peanuts” was her favorite comic strip growing up because, according to her, “I always felt like Charles Schulz was telling me the truth. And sometimes he would make me laugh as he was telling me the truth.”
That combination of humor and honesty shines through in her books, and I’m happy to say that, somehow, entertainment mega-corporation Disney has managed to capture some of that same mellow spirit, in a low-profile streaming release no less. As someone who read the book growing up, I was anxious that Disney would employ their lowest-common-denominator shortcuts: loud jokes, wacky characters, and a story mainly focused on keeping distractable kids with short attention spans mildly entertained.
Instead, they opted to tell this story in all its mellow strangeness, beginning with Flora, a 10-year-old comic-book enthusiast and self-proclaimed cynic. “Do not hope, observe” is her life motto, a maxim she got from a survival book series “Terrible Things Can Happen to You.” We soon discover why she adheres so dutifully to this mentality: Flora’s parents are recently separated, with her father, a failed comic-book artist, moving out and leaving her alone with her mother, a romance novelist struggling to write her next book because of the lack of love in her own marriage.
Flora’s skeptical view of the world is challenged when she meets Ulysses, an unassuming squirrel gifted with superpowers after accidentally being sucked up into a self-propelled vacuum cleaner. His abilities include flight, super strength, writing poetry, and being able to consume an ungodly amount of cheese puffs. Inspired by the example of her father’s comic-book hero, the Amazing Incandesto, Flora becomes inspired to help Ulysses find his purpose and, along the way, begins to wonder if maybe there is room for hope in a world of disappointment.
Right off the bat, that synopsis probably sounds super strange, and most of that is a result of DiCamillo’s uniquely offbeat sensibilities. Of course, this being a Disney release, some efforts have been made to make this story more accessible to kids and Disney fans in general. Subtle and not-so-subtle superhero references abound (it helps that Disney just so happens to own the rights to the biggest cinematic superhero franchise currently in existence), and the book’s meandering pace has been streamlined to be more movie-friendly.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers were wise enough to avoid the primary blunder Disney made in adapting another beloved children’s book, “Artemis Fowl”: Disney-fying the story and characters beyond recognition. Flora is still the level-headed, matter-of-fact, beyond-her-years girl that she is in the book, with Matilda Lawler giving one of the most genuine and likable performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Her mother (Alyson Hannigan) is still the snarky, melodramatic Debbie-downer so caught up in her writer’s block that we often question how mature she really is compared to Flora. Her father (Ben Schwartz, in an uncharacteristically subdued performance) is a still mild-mannered outsider with a hidden streak of hopefulness underneath his world-weary exterior.
More than that, the film isn’t afraid to embrace the book’s heavier themes. The separation of Flora’s parents is approached with authenticity: for her, their separation represented the loss of her sense of home, and we come to see that her cynical viewpoint stems from the disillusionment of that loss. There’s a reason she resonates so deeply with the mournful words of Incandesto: “I am homesick for my own kind.”
The film tackles the theme of cynicism with sincerity as well as a sense of humor. Though her mantra of “do not hope, observe” may feel out of place in a Disney movie, Flora’s view of the world is treated as both understandable and justified given her circumstances. Her parent’s separation did indeed rock her world, and we can see in both of them immaturity that explains Flora’s reluctance to hope for their reconciliation.
And then there’s Ulysses: a convincingly animated CGI squirrel with all the potential in the world to be extremely annoying, ala “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Thank all that is good in this world, because this movie has the wisdom and self-control to not make Ulysses an aggressively friendly, smart-talking CGI nightmare. He’s just a squirrel who happens to understand humans, write poetry, and fly. His inevitable moments of squirrel hijinks are evenly spaced throughout the movie and, more importantly, are actually quite funny. Rather than being the annoying, destructive, dim-witted misanthrope that animated side-characters often become, his presence is one of unbounded curiosity, furry cuteness, and unabashed goodness.
This is essential because Ulysses serves as the heart of this story and the driver of its message. Because of their difficulties and dysfunction, Flora and her family have lost hope for their world to ever be made right. “Superheroes only exist in comic books,” Flora’s father wistfully reminds her. Enter Ulysses, an incorruptible ball of goodness who embodies all the childlike wonder towards life that the family has long since lost. Through his example, the three of them come to realize that maybe the world around them has always been full of goodness that they’ve simply been unwilling to fight for.
As Flora says at the end of the movie, “Do not hope, observe, because, when you do, you’ll see how much wonder the world actually has.” In the end, “Flora and Ulysses” isn’t a particularly remarkable movie; it’s just a really solid family movie that avoids many of the potential pitfalls of the genre. It didn’t thrill me with heart-pumping action or leave me laughing out loud. Rather, its subtle sense of humor, down-to-earth atmosphere, likable characters, and authentic approach to its message left me entertained, encouraged, and maybe even a little inspired (as inspired as a kid’s movie about a superhero squirrel could, at least).
“Flora and Ulysses” is now available to stream on Disney Plus.
Ben Hiett is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterwards, and hanging with the boys.