Producer: Gil Netter Director: Lena Khan Screenplay: Brad Copeland Cast: Matilda Lawler, John Kassir, Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Anna Deavere Smith, Danny Pudi, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Janeane Garofalo, Kate Micucci, Bobby Moynihan and Nancy Robertson Distributor: Disney+
Kate DiCamillo’s 2013 children’s novel, which won the Newbery Medal for 2014, has been transformed into a rather flat Disney movie combining live action and animation. It might appeal to very young viewers, but anyone whose age has entered double digits will probably find it pretty tedious.
The heroine is ten-year old Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler, a fairly sedate little girl with a disarming smile she flashes frequently), a self-styled cynic whose life has been upended by the separation of her parents Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) and George (Ben Schwartz). Mom is a romance novelist suffering from writers block; she’s also at a fragile point financially. Dad is a would-be comic book creator reduced to working in an electronics store under an officious young manager.
Flora’s life takes an unexpected turn when she rescues a squirrel that’s been sucked into a neighbor’s (Nancy Robertson) vacuum cleaner, which for some reason has been rampaging through the lawn. The little critter is dead, but Flora resuscitates it with mouth-to-mouth and CPR, and adopts it secretly. A comic book aficionado, she believes that the squirrel’s experience has given it super-powers, and it turns out she’s right. Ulysses, as she calls her newfound friend, can communicate on her mom’s typewriter—poetically, no less—and understands what Flora says. Eventually physical prowess will be revealed, too.
But needless to say, complications arise. Once Phyllis finds out about Ulysses, she wants to be rid of the squirrel. And when George takes his daughter and Ulysses out to a restaurant, chaos ensues after a waitress named Rita (Kate Micucci) screams rabies. That brings into the equation the most predictable element in such a fable—the fanatical animal control officer, a fellow named Miller (Danny Pudi), who has special issues with squirrels, as flashbacks show. He’s determined to catch Ulysses, and the repeated attempts lead to lots of slapstick violence in which he suffers indignity after indignity, not only from the cute evasions of the squirrel but the nastier assaults of a mean-spirited feline called Mr. Klaus (or is it Claws)?
There are a couple of other important characters, too. One is William Spiver (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), the visiting nephew of the neighbor whose vacuum nearly ate Ulysses. In a weird subplot, the boy is suffering from hysterical blindness (its cause revealed in a sentimental turn toward the close), and his pratfalls add to the movie’s slapstick quota. There’s also Dr. Meescham (Anna Deavere Smith), an oddball but kindly doctor who helps our titular heroes.
Lawler and Ainsworth make a likable young couple, and John Kassir provides the squirrely chatter of Ulysses (who does not speak, thankfully). The adults tend to italicize everything, as though they were acting for an audience who can’t understand non-cartoonish behavior. That’s particularly true of Pudi, whose performance is basically a litany of different types of mugging, but Hannigan and Schwartz aren’t far behind. The animation is fine, though better for the squirrel than the cat.
Tech credits are okay for this TV-grade fare; though Jamie Gross’s editing is more than a little lethargic, Michael Fitzgerald’s production design and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography are bright, if unimaginative. Jake Monaco’s score gets awfully bouncy and insistent, but that’s par for the course with this kind of material.
There’s nothing offensive about “Flora & Ulysses,” unless you find the blindness business so—or are a cat person. But though innocuous, it’s a totally unexceptional kidflick.