Over the last 16 months, Disney+ has unleashed a slew of original films and TV shows, but few have felt like throwbacks to the days when Walt Disney Pictures released one low-budget, low-stakes comedy into theaters after another, in the hopes of translating into moderate box-office success. Though Disney+ has had a fair amount of new films, most of them – either because of the pandemic or through sheer luck – feel bigger than their streaming home. Flora & Ulysses, based on the graphic novel of the same name, is exactly the right size for Disney+, a cute and light film that manages to not be weighed down even by familial strife.
And that kind of strife is the backbone of the film. Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a young girl with comic books on her mind, not only because her dad George (Ben Schwartz) creates them for a living. When her dad and mom (Alyson Hannigan) separate for reasons that are less due to romance and more to professional frustrations, Flora is adrift until she encounters an odd squirrel named Ulysses, who seems to gain superpowers after a nasty run-in with a vacuum cleaner.
Flora & Ulysses is not exactly a surprising film – like many Disney live-action comedies of old, you will probably have a good idea where and how the film will resolve, generally speaking, within the first act. What makes Flora & Ulysses more than just palatable is effective if surprising casting. Fans of the recent DuckTales revival may rejoice at the presence of all four of the main actors from that show appearing here: along with Schwartz, Danny Pudi appears as a nasty animal control agent, Bobby Moynihan appears as a grouchy comic-book store employee, and Kate Micucci plays a flustered waitress. Schwartz is the real surprise here; though he’s got enough humor to play with, George’s pathos is played effectively without any winks to the audience.
Lawler, too, manages to walk a fine line between being precocious as Flora, who seems wise beyond her years (thanks to the script by Brad Copeland), and being just enough of a child. It’s a tough role, but well acted by Lawler and well directed by Lena Khan. If there’s any kind of struggle with Flora & Ulysses, it’s that one of the two title characters is a CG creation that’s never terribly believable. The issue isn’t in regards to the actors – just as an audience has to suspend its disbelief when you’re dealing with things like a squirrel who may have superpowers, the actors have to sell it, and they do their able best. But the magic of the movies, perhaps limited here because it’s a streaming title and not something you’re watching on the big screen, only goes so far. In short: it’s always extremely obvious that the humans in the film are watching a CG squirrel, even though it’s supposed to look like the real thing.
The tie-in to comic books and superheroes also ends up feeling particularly apt, considering that Flora & Ulysses will be sharing space with the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Disney+ (as well as a new weekly episode of WandaVision). It’s almost a merciful relief that the tie-in doesn’t go too far. Though Flora’s fertile imagination is such that she envisions the superheroes her father creates running around her real life, it’s not as if she encounters an Avenger in her exploits.
Aside from Schwartz, the other adult performances are all largely effective. Hannigan, herself playing a frustrated artist (a romance novelist), offers a nice counterbalance to Schwartz, even as we know that the two parents will inevitably return to each other’s arms. Of the other DuckTales alums, Pudi gets the most to do as the only true antagonist of the picture, trying to take Ulysses away from Flora and only getting angrier with each failed attempt. He’s as close as the film comes to outlandishly wacky comedy, but he’s more than up for the challenge.
Flora & Ulysses is, at its core, a very nice and sweet film. It’s low-key, but frankly, that’s fine. Sometimes, the stakes in life don’t have to get much higher than whether or not two struggling adults can find each other again, and whether or not a child can traverse a world without a strong family unit. More to the point, this is the kind of film that Disney used to make when people like this critic were children themselves. Though the film’s aims are mild, and its use of CG is ineffective if necessary, it’s encouraging to see someone at the studio remembers that not every film has to be do or die, even if it has superheroes on its mind.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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