Most of Disney’s animal-related films have been animated, colorful musicals. “Flora & Ulysses,” on the other hand, takes the kid-with-an-animal concept and applies it to a live-action film. Of course, Flora’s flying squirrel companion is computer-animated, but he’s much cuter that way.
The film stars Matilda Lawler (“The Block Island Sound”) as Flora, a 10-year-old self-proclaimed cynic as she navigates her complicated home life with separated parents and a lack of companionship. Although she once loved comic books and believed in superheroes, she no longer fantasizes about magical things after watching her family life become more and more tangled. Her parents’ relationship is falling apart and she’s losing any glimmer of hope she once had about things working out. But everything changes when she rescues Ulysses (John Kassir, “Tales from the Crypt”) in a slightly disturbing yet strangely heartwarming scene involving mouth-to-squirrel resuscitation and an outdoor, self-automated vacuum.
Although the superhero squirrel was what I was most looking forward to seeing while watching the movie, he turned out to be rather disappointing. Ulysses’s cute squirrel sounds are one of his only personality traits, making it difficult to fall in love with him as a character. While Ulysses motivates the journey through his mischief, Flora is the one in the driver’s seat. She saves the film from its cheesiness through her undeniable confidence and complexity of character. Flora takes on life with a refreshing perspective that most young Disney protagonists don’t have, saying things like, “Cynics don’t hope. They see what’s real.” Flora is not a dreamer, and that’s what makes her charming, captivating and spunky.
After discovering that Ulysses has superhero-like powers, Flora sets out to find his purpose with the help of her neighbor William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, “The Haunting of Bly Manor”), who is experiencing temporary blindness from an incident that he won’t speak about. William is constantly running into walls and putting his arms out to feel what’s in front of him. The film not only misrepresents the blind community but also attempts to use it for cheap humor. Flora does befriend William when they are both in need of companionship, which counts for something, but it feels as though his blindness adds nothing to the story besides insensitive, slapstick humor.
As the story progresses, it becomes less and less about Ulysses. He wreaks havoc all over town, but the primary focus is Flora and her relationship with her father (Ben Schwartz, “Parks and Recreation”) and her mother (Alyson Hannigan, “How I Met Your Mother”). The super-squirrel is simply the catalyst of change. It becomes clear that, as a superhero, he has no other purpose than to bring magic back into Flora’s world.
Although targeted toward children, anyone can benefit from a film that reminds us to see the magic in everyday life. Flora’s mother gets emotional after realizing that she’s been unsympathetic toward her daughter and says, “How could I ever forget that there’s magic in the world when you’re standing right in front of me?” The transition from themes of romantic love to themes of familial love within Disney films has become apparent in movies like “Frozen,” and “Flora & Ulysses” takes a similar approach.
“Flora & Ulysses” is a lighthearted fantasy film, but the way it approaches topics of parental separation and blindness with such little gravity is somewhat problematic. A magical squirrel helps a hopeless 10-year-old girl live happily ever after over the course of a few days. Yes, having hope is important, but setting up such an unrealistic solution to a real-world problem only creates impractical expectations for an audience of children.
The film takes the separation of parents — a relatable situation for many children — and attempts to sprinkle in some hope through the presence of a super-squirrel. At the end of the film, Flora gains her child-like hope and optimism back. Ulysses unknowingly helps her bring her parents back together and William even gains his sight back. “Flora & Ulysses” takes the happy ending to new (and maybe misinformed) heights. But I guess that’s just Disney.
Daily Arts Contributor Laura Millar can be reached at email@example.com.