FLORA & ULYSSES: A Super Squirrel Flies Into Action in the new Walt Disney Studio adventure

Based on a children’s novel, the quirky film mixes comic books, comedy, and heartfelt drama
Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler) teaches Ulysses how to be a proper superhero in “Flora & Ulysses”. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

“Flora & Ulysses” is the curious and heartwarming new comedy which stars Matilda Lawler in her film debut as spunky and cynical Flora Buckman, an avid comic book reader who looks at the world from the lens of superheroes – from justice, the battle between good and evil, and love and loss.

Things in Flora’s life have been strained since her parents separated, and the film picks up while she is living with her romance-novelist mother Phyllis, (played by Alyson Hannigan).

Flora’s father, George (played by Ben Schwartz), was once a comic book artist who created many original stories and heroes who never got published, though they live in Flora’s imagination and influence her view of the world. George, along with his estranged wife Phyllis, have both regressed in their pursuits and their careers since their separation, and in turn this has affected young Flora and her outlook.

She longs for something in the world to change her current stagnant situation, and just as quickly as she is contemplating life, she encounters a squirrel in distress who changes her and her family’s life forever.

Ulysses the squirrel, who gets caught inside a robot-vacuum, comes out the other end a superpowered critter, with new intellect and many questions about his own place in the world; together with Flora, they spend the film figuring out what makes a superhero, and what is important in life.

What comes from this is a mix of genres and comedy styles, comedy with hints of superhero, romance, and drama films.

Director Lena Khan said about its premise:

“When the world brings you down, what does it take to get back up again? Sometimes, that might be a very crazy, funny journey with a squirrel with extraordinary and strange superhero skills.”

Khan added:

“First off, it’s hilarious. And it has characters that are real, with emotions that run deep, that are going through stuff that we go through all the time. Behind everything, there’s a message of hope, of the power of love in friendship and family.”

Based on a book “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” by author Kate DiCamillo, the book’s story is closely adapted with the film version, with some of the book’s most quirky moments making it into the film. One such moment is Ulysses’ origin story.

DiCamillo recounted the origin of that origin:

“My mom had a vacuum cleaner that she loved and, she passed away in 2009. And in the last year of her life, she kept on saying, ‘What’s gonna happen to the vacuum cleaner when I’m gone?’ And I was like, ‘Why are we worried about the vacuum cleaner? There are bigger things to worry about.’ But when she did, I did as I promised her I would do. I took the vacuum cleaner, so that it would have a good home, except that my mom had a cat – the world’s most evil cat named Mildew and I’m [allergic] to cats, and I couldn’t bring the vacuum cleaner into the house because of all the Mildew hair in it, so I had to leave it out in the garage. Every time I pulled into the garage, I would see the vacuum cleaner, and it would make my heart hurt. It would make me miss my mother.”

“Then, the spring after my mother died, there was this squirrel on the front steps of my house, draped dramatically across the steps, clearly in distress. And he  wouldn’t move when I got close to him and I didn’t know what to do for him. I called one of my best friends who lives a block away.”

“I said, “Help me. There’s a squirrel dying on my front steps.” She said, “Do you have a T-shirt and a shovel?” And I said, “I do.” And she said, “Get the T- shirt, get the shovel. I will come over there and whack him over the head.” That’s what she said.”

“And all of this made me think about E.B. White’s essay, “Death of a Pig”. How he’s going out to feed a pig and thought about ways to save a pig’s life. I thought about ways to save the squirrel’s life and I combined it with the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and that’s the story.”

And as for the fate of that squirrel?

 “Well, the squirrel left when he heard my friend saying, ‘Whack him over the head with a shovel,’ you know? The squirrel was like, ‘I’m no dummy,’” Says DiCamillo.

Although the film is parts comedy, parts drama, there is a big emphasis on the physical funniness of it all, with sight gags, call backs to previous occurrences, and some discomfort for the sake of the film’s humor. A lot of it falls on either the adult actors and their sharp comedic skills, or superhero Ulysses, who is generally a CGI animal.

Director Lena Khan says that the zaniness of the film is just a heightened version of the events that are already I the book itself, but because of the famed super-squirrel, it elevated the production to another level.

“Ulysses, I can’t get enough of him. But the blueprint for most of the stuff that happened is in the book, so we were kinda lucky there. Apparently, crazy things like vacuum cleaners and everything end up in Kate’s home.”

“And, we got to play with all kinds of things and we got to play with, you know, stunts off of buildings and car crashes and then, it’s just kind of written in Kate’s brain and our writer Brad Copeland’s brain, who wrote for “Arrested Development”. So, he put all that kind of weirdness and fun into the movie, and then it was just kind of making it all weird, which, you know, our lovely cast did.”

“So, it was a lotta fun just kinda making things a little crazier. We did use [real squirrels] I got to have two squirrels on my lap and they were trained, and they did tricks, but they couldn’t do everything that Ulysses did, so then we just had to create Ulysses [with CGI],” she adds.

With a realistic family drama mixed with adventure, comedy, and a very unique squirrel, “Flora & Ulysses” breaks barriers with its eccentric voice which comes straight off the pages of the beloved children’s novel and onto the screen.

It’s available now to watch on Disney+.