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Movie Review: Disney’s new ‘Flora & Ulysses’ is cute – but fails to hit the full family target

by Susan and Simon Veness

If you ever want to know what a squirrel’s mouth tastes like, Flora Belle Buckman will be able to provide the full lowdown as the, ahem, tasty introduction to the latest movie from the increasingly busy Disney+ production pipeline, “Flora & Ulysses”.

Flora & Ulysses in a box
A scene from Disney’s “Flora & Ulysses”.

“Flora & Ulysses” — streaming online starting this Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 — is based on the Newbery Award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo, and mixes the latest generation CGI special effects with a suitably wacky and industrious cast that features Alyson Hannigan (from TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”), and Danny Pudi (“Community”).

Perhaps best of all, though, it introduces child star Matilda Lawler as Flora, bringing the perfect level of innocence, savvy, and swagger to her role as the eager human sidekick to Disney’s latest super-hero, a hungry squirrel with a penchant for cheese puffs. (Read about the making of the movie.)

Flora reading a comic book.
Flora reads the Incandesto comic book.

Now, this isn’t the latest offering from the Marvel Universe, hence Flora’s squirrel, which she names Ulysses, won’t be facing up to any Earth-defending moments or super-villain shenanigans.

Instead, this is more a gentle tale for children of the right age (probably the six to 10-year-old age group), and it centers on the dysfunctional Buckman family and their inability to get along or, in the case of her father (played by Schwartz), hold down even a basic job at a Staples-lookalike store.

It includes plenty of well-delivered slapstick. In particular, watch for the hilarious Donut Shop scene; a pantomime villain (Pudi) in a role cast straight from the Dick Dastardly mold (minus the mustache); and the cutest CGI animal since Paddington Bear.

Ulysses, thus named by Flora after being sucked into a runaway vacuum — hence the need for squirrely CPR at the beginning of the movie — is undoubtedly the star of the show, with super-hero traits that range from writing winning poetry to flying to Mr. Buckman’s rescue.

It is a rare, not to mention perplexing, combination that serves to knit the Buckman family back together, but only after they careen through a series of misadventures that also include a malign cat and a baffling newspaper interview that will leave viewers scratching their heads for days.

And therein lies the movie’s biggest failing. Because, while it will surely appeal to and enchant children in equal measure, it is likely to fall as flat as a car crushed by a giant concrete donut (yes, that happens, too) for the adults in the audience.

In taking DiCamillo’s 200-page book aimed at the Elementary-to-Middle School crowd and expanding it into a 95-minute movie, director Lena Khan and screenwriter Brad Copeland have concocted a perplexing story arc that veers wildly from cartoon clowning to sub-Hallmark Channel platitudes.

Add in a fortune-cookie level of dialogue and characters that only occasionally rise above two dimensional — Schwartz as Mr. Buckman practically sleep-walks through the first half of the movie before finally discovering some mojo, while Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as the temporarily-blind-boy-next-door is all but inert — and the grown-ups will be grateful for every well-groomed hair on Ulysses’ computer-generated head.

Hannigan battles gamely with a character that is as hard to read as Mrs. Buckman’s latest and unfinished romance novel, but we never get any convincing insight into why she and George are separated when they appear to be still truly in love, and what it is that keeps them from reuniting.

Ultimately, the kids in the audience won’t care and will be more than happy to see Pudi — as villainous animal control officer Miller, a character introduced especially for the big screen — battling his feline nemesis Mr. Klaus (pronounced ‘Claws’, for good reason) in manic fashion, while Ulysses saves the day for everyone, especially the hapless George.

“Flora and Ulysses” has hints of movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and Rob Schneider’s “The Animal” but, while it never veers into the frantic excesses of those two, it never captures the inherent charm of “Paddington,” either. In the end, you’d have to say it is a marmalade sandwich short of a true CGI picnic.

PS: If you really want to know what a squirrel’s mouth tastes like without having to sit through the movie, it is “fuzzy, damp and slightly nutty,” according to Flora. So now you know.

PPS: One day we will get a movie where a child’s parents aren’t divorced or separated. It will make a nice change.

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