Director: Lena Khan | Screenwriter: Brad Copeland | Cast: Matilda Lawler, Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Anna Deavere Smith, Danny Pudi, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Janeane Garofalo, Kate Micucci | Distributor: Disney+ | Running Time: 95 min. | MPAA Rating: PG
It’d be so easy for something like Flora & Ulysses to be a par-for-the-course cute animal movie, where a clearly CGI pet helps saves the day. Thankfully, director Lena Khan pumps the brakes before this kind of story falls off a cliff with mundane slapstick. Don’t worry, kids – that level of silliness is still there where you can expect that cute squirrel to end up in somebody’s hair. But there’s just a bit more absurdity to make this film a tad more pleasing for the older crowd who need a little more than a relatable kid and a funny animal to be amused by such a farce.
I started tracking just how frequently I found myself amused with such a picture and the lengths it went to for comedy. Within the first few seconds, the lead kid character of Flora (Matilda Lawler) talks about Silver Surfer’s butt before divulging her love for comic books. Within the first few minutes, we learn that Flora’s mother is a depressed drunk who writes erotic novels (including one with a ghost boyfriend and ghost children!). And by the five-minute mark, we’re introduced to Ulysses, portrayed as an average squirrel who was sucked into a robotic vacuum cleaner.
The story itself is relatively simple. Flora rescues the squirrel Ulysses and discovers that the creature has the ability to not only understand humans but use a typewriter to communicate. She believes this squirrel to be a hero, revitalizing her faith in comic book heroes she initially pushed aside after her comic artist of a father left her. Her relationship with an animal may be enough to save her family from committing to a divorce. Of course, she’ll have to contend with a pesky animal control agent who has absolutely nothing better to do than track one squirrel.
It’s everything around such a routine animal picture that makes it all the more hilarious. Flora’s mother Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) is an incredibly interesting character as a drowning-in-drinks romance novelist who has composed some of the strangest novels that I’d honestly want to read for seeming so weird. Flora’s father George (Ben Schwartz) needs to only grow a big enough backbone to get back in the artistic spirit and reconnect with his daughter. And then there’s Danny Pudi as the animal control agent Miller. Pudi can be pretty funny with so little but the way this film tries to paint him as some sexy detective with a saxophone theme song is just so ridiculous I couldn’t help but crack up over something so stupid.
Honestly, the best parts of Flora and Ulysses is everything outside the story of girl meets squirrel. Their whole dynamic is playfully wholesome and the CG-created squirrel is by no means the worst of this sub-genre of films (not even the most annoying). I’m just grateful that such a picture didn’t just decide to sit on its hands anytime there wasn’t a scene with Ulysses scurrying around floors or running up pant legs. It’s just too bad that the film more or less settles on the expected showdown, where Ulysses must ascend to hero status and Miller must be defeated in a slapstick fashion. But for most of the film, I was pleasantly surprised to see a film that manages a tough balancing act of absurd humor and wholesome kid fun. It’s not only rare to see that in most family movies but uncommonly rare in films centered entirely around goofy CG animals invading a live-action world. Any film that can outshine the titular animal on screen is fine in my book.