Review – Flora and Ulysses

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, February 26th.This is WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you’ve tuned in today. 

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A new Disney+ movie about an unlikely superhero.

Perhaps the most common set up in children’s movies is for a young protagonist with true-blue belief in magical possibilities to eventually win over cynical adults. Flora, one of the title characters in Disney+’s latest original movie, Flora & Ulysses, is different. She begins as a cynic.

CLIP: Some would still believe life is a comic book, filled with wonder, where miraculous things happen. Where families stay together. But I am a cynic. And a cynic knows that superheroes are only in your head. Looks like fun. Not for me. I have more serious matters to attend to. Oh right, me too. The righteous never rest. The danger is what’s real. Not that it’s easy to let go of hope. Remember our contract. Cynics live in defiance of contracts. What? Cynics invented contracts.

True to life, 11-year-old Flora, played by excellent newcomer Matilda Lawler, has absorbed the lessons her parents have modeled for her.  Her father, played by Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz, has allowed a series of professional setbacks to convince him to stop trying to publish his comic books. Instead, he’s settled for the bitter grind of stocking shelves at a big box retailer. Her romance novelist mother, played by How I Met Your Mother’s Alysson Hannigan, is a victim of success. She’s so petrified by fear of her critics, she can no longer bring herself to risk writing something bad. Focused on their individual failures, they’ve both given up on their marriage.

CLIP: Our lives used to be full of magic. Are you getting divorced? No, we’re just trying to figure things out.

What has Flora taken away from all this? That life is a series of defeats. That it’s better to live without hope than to experience disappointment.

CLIP: Flora, I used to think that life was a comic book too. Full of magic and wonder, but it’s not. There is no magic. You just want there to be so the world doesn’t feel so hopeless. But Incandesto says. Incandesto is a drawing honey. All superheroes are.  

Clearly, Flora is in need of rescue. Or at least a profound attitude adjustment.

Enter Ulysses, a pint-sized superhero disguised by an alter-ego so unassuming, even Clark Kent would envy it: a red squirrel.

Whether it’s leaping treehouses in a single bound or writing odes to cheeseballs, little by little, Ulysses reveals his supernatural abilities. And he convinces Flora and her next door neighbor, William, to start seeing wonder in the world again. And hope, as always, is infectious. Once they see it, others begin to as well.

CLIP: He’s not just a squirrel, dad. He’s got powers. He’s been transformed like Alfred T. Slipper. Okay. That’s it? That’s what. This squirrel is a superhero. The universe sent him for a reason. Stop it. Stop it. He’s just exploring his powers. All superheroes do.

At times, the movie takes a slapstick-y, Looney Tunes direction. Instead of Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits, we get an overly enthusiastic animal control officer hunting for rabies-infested forest rodents. The maniacal CGI cat that attacks him at regular intervals may be a bit tiresome for adults, but it’s just the thing to keep kids engaged with the movie’s deeper themes.

And these are well worth their time. In the last several decades, children’s movies from Mrs. Doubtfire to Night at the Museum have treated divorce more as an opportunity for kids to experience positive growth than the trauma it truly is. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery award-winning novel, Flora & Ulysses doesn’t pretend that divorce offers kids anything but heartbreak. The film refuses to impose the false, upbeat narrative that her parent’s individual, separate love for Flora is as good as their joined love for her as a married couple.

CLIP: It turns out, the hardest thing about having hope is watching the people who don’t. And the only thing harder than that is watching the people who once did.

The story leaves a few minor plot threads at loose ends, and some parents will wish that some of the PG jokes involving romance novel covers and comic book characters who don’t wear clothes had been left on the cutting room floor. But for all its pratfalls and fantasy, Flora & Ulysses tells kids some important truths.


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