Famed children’s fiction novelist Kate DiCamillo has another one of her books adapted in Disney+’s Flora & Ulysses. Directed by Lena Khan, Flora & Ulysses is a comedy-adventure based on the same-titled book. The Newbery Award-winning book is about 10-year-old Flora (Matlida Lawler), an avid comic book fan and a self-avowed cynic, whose parents Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) and George (Ben Schwartz) have recently separated.
One day Flora rescues a squirrel from being sucked into a vacuum, whom she dubs Ulysses. To her amazement, Flora discovers he possesses unique superhero powers. The duo then embarks on an adventure of humorous complications that ultimately change Flora’s life–and her outlook–forever. While I’ve never read any of Kate DiCamillo’s books, I previously enjoyed the adaptations of Because Of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, two of her more popular books. I had minimal expectations for Flora & Ulysses, and suffice to say; my assumptions were on the money.
Flora & Ulysses starts promising enough with our tween heroine Flora doing voiceover that validates her love of the superhero genre. Naturally, the studio uses product placement during the intro. We see shots of Iron Man, Black Panther, and other heroes from Marvel’s catalog. Lena Khan then introduces us to Flora as she negotiates a sale of comic books to a collector. It’s a great setup. I will commend the movie for its characterization of Flora, which Matlida Lawler plays with just the right of cuteness. Lawler carries the film, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her as Valeria Richards whenever Disney decides to reboot the Fantastic Four. I’m sad to say, though, Lawler is the only bright spot in the film.
In the roles of Flora’s parents, Alyson Hannigan and Ben Schwartz’s performances both reek of strictly for the paycheck performance. Hannigan’s Phyllis is a once-successful romance writer whose own marital problems have caused writer’s block. One of Hannigan’s low moments is a flat joke involving cheeseballs. Fresh off his enjoyable voice performance as the titular character in last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog, Ben Schwartz plays a failed comic book artist here. As a husband and father myself, I didn’t fully agree with his character for leaving his family. It’s a weak plot point. Furthermore, if the script had swapped the parents’ profession, perhaps the jokes may have landed better.
The film’s supporting cast do the best that they can. Bobby Moynihan has a great cameo as the comic book store owner Stanlee. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth portrays a new friend of Flora while Anna Deavere Smith appears as Dr. Meescham, George’s landlord. There’s also Danny Pudi in a Razzie-worthy performance of Miller, an overzealous animal control worker looking to catch Ulysses. Pudi was more annoying than menacing in the film.
The film’s writer Brad Copeland is no stranger to the children’s film genre, having written Yogi Bear, Ferdinand, and Spies in Disguise. That’s why it’s a surprise the film is so mundane. In retrospect, I feel the initial pitch was for a TV series, and the powers that be chose to go the film route instead. Copeland has some great ideas, but the ninety-minute run time never allows the scribe to flesh them out. Ulysses gets his powers, bonds with Flora, and has a goal to achieve, etc. All of the plot points are there for a good family film; it just never comes together.
Younger viewers may find something to enjoy in Flora & Ulysses; however, anyone over the age of ten should steer clear.
Final Grade: D
Flora & Ulysses is available to stream on Disney + this Friday, February 19.