Movie Review: “Flora & Ulysses,” the “Disney Version” of a beloved kids’ novel

Kids movies like “Flora & Ulysses” make you appreciate the acting profession.

A talented, accomplished cast can be signed on to an effects-driven picture aimed at a very young audience. But the thing that makes them act the daylights out of it, “sell” this silly concept, is professionalism, committing to the job and by force of will, making us buy in or at least have a laugh to three.

Alyson Hannigan (“How I Met Your Mother”), Ben Schwartz (“Sonic the Hedgehog”), Anna Deveare Smith (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), Danny Pudi (“Community”), Bobby Moynihan (“Saturday Night Live”) and Kate Micucci (Big Bang Theory”) are pros who give this version of the Kate DiCamillo novel their all. And if they can’t make it come off on their own, they come darned close.

Because heaven help me, I laughed a few times at this herky jerky not-that-quirky adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s hit kid-lit novel.

The story is a Marvel Meets Mehitabel mashup, a tale of a squirrel whose access to a keyboard lets his squirrel’s-eye-view “poetry” come out into the world. The much-honored novelist borrowed ee cummings’ “Archie & Mehitabel” gimmick of critter-typewritten poetry and married it to America’s obsession with superhero comics and won her second Newbery Medal (“Because of Winn-Dixie” won the other) for the idea.

Disney owns Marvel and has the bank account to make a squirrel, sucked into a robot vacuum and thus given super powers, come to the screen. The digital-animated squirrel isn’t exactly lifelike, or even based on one native to North America. The hairy, pointy ears suggest he’s a Eurasian Red Squirrel, but no matter. All he’s got to do is fly like a superhero and as Deadpool reminds us, “stick the (superhero) landing.”

Matilda Lawler plays Flora, a comic-obsessed 10-year-old whose Dad’s comic, Incandesto, never caught on.

That failure sent her family into a stress-induced divorce spiral. Dad (Schwartz) moved out and works at an office supply warehouse store. Mom (Hannigan) is a romance novelist who “wrote about love because she had love,” but who has lost her romance and developed writer’s block.

Flora’s comic-book fueled belief that “miraculous things happen” has curdled into cynicism.

And then that robotic yard vac — Ulysses is the brand name — sucks a squirrel into its innards and Flora has to save him. CPR doesn’t work, so mouth-to-mouth it is.

Squirrel breath? Pretty much what you’d expect. “Fuzzy, damp and kinda nutty.”

Flora becomes convinced this illegal pet was put in her care for a reason, that he has super-powers. All he has to do is log-on to prove it.

The screenwriter has “Wild Hogs” and “Yogi Bear,” “Spies in Disguise” and “Ferdinand” in his credits, so there’s a lot of slapstick mixed in with the comic book jokes and temporarily-blind neighbor kid (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) gags.

Flora’s imaginary companion — Dad’s Incandesto character — is an afterthought the movie doesn’t need. But every time the squirrel “sticks the landing” I chuckled. When Flora narrates “There’s always that moment in any ‘origin story,'” I had to giggle. When the blind kid, perhaps making a point about the value of the “poetry,” shows up with a collection of Rilke poetry, I cackled.

How’s even a temporarily-blind 10-year-old know Rilke, or even know he’s handing off the right book?

Digital squirrel trashing a donut shop? Kind of funny. Kate Micucci playing the waitress? Almost. Danny Pudi as a demoted animal control officer hellbent on catching that “rabid” squirrel? Not funny enough.

Even the “life affirming” squirrel poetry, a real selling point because it worked so well for the writer DiCamillo stole the idea from, is just shy of getting the job done.

“I love your round head,” Ulysses types. “The brilliant green, the sky so new. These letters, this world. You…I am very hungry.”

DiCamillo’s messaging feels shoehorned into all this rather than an integral element of the story, a common complaint in adaptations of her work. “Turns out,” sad Flora narrates, “the hardest thing about having hope is watching the people who don’t.”

Maybe her books aren’t particularly adaptable. Anybody remember “The Tales of Despereaux?” The movie, I mean?

Maybe this screenwriter and this second-time director (she did “The Tiger Hunter”) weren’t the right people to weave profundity and sadness in with animated squirrel slapstick.

The actors may give their all and the squirrel might indeed “stick the landing.” “Flora & Ulysses” still falls a little short of the mark.

MPA Rating: PG

Cast: Matilda Lawler,  Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Danny Pudi, Anna Deveare Smith, Bobby Moynihan and Kate Micucci

Credits: Directed by Lena Khan, script by Brad Copeland, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. A Walt Disney/Disney+ release.

Running time: 1:30

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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