Flora & Ulysses (2021)
PG. I was wondering how in the world this didn't get the mythical live-action G-rating...and then I remember that there's a teeny-tiny amount of blood. Danny Pudi's bad guy has a cut across his nose after running into a mean cat. Okay. I suppose the movie might be also playing up ableism for laughs, which kind of felt uncomfortable at times. Regardless, the movie is extremely tame (pun intended).
DIRECTOR: Lena Khan
I have a bit of a story behind this movie. It's a tiny bit embarrassing, so strap in. A few years ago, I was teaching sixth through eighth grade at a small Catholic school near me. This had to be at least seven, eight years ago, so I was still a bit more underripe than I am now. I really wanted to show off and be that impressive teacher. I still kind of do, but it's different now. Anyway, my friend said that his aunt was Kate DiCamillo, the author of Flora & Ulysses. For those people who know my friends, you know who pulled this card. I jumped at the chance for this to happen and told my boss that I was going to have a Q&A with the author of a bunch of children's novels about the writing process. Um...my buddy completely lied to me because he thought it was funny. Admittedly, it was pretty funny, but I do wince at the thought of anything involving Kate Dicamillo. That being said, this movie was pretty good.
Part of me has to put this first and foremost: DuckTales fans are going to lose their minds. The reboot of Disney's DuckTales is one of my favorite animated children's programs ever. It's funny and witty. But also, the majority of the cast of DuckTales is in Flora & Ulysses. I don't know if they just opened the door to the DuckTales recording session and invited them to take over their film, but that's how it kind of comes across. Like, Bobby Moynihan feels like he has half a day of filming in this movie, but he's not going to let his buddies down. (Note: I'm becoming a big Bobby Moynihan fan.) This headcanon I've established might be exclusively responsible for a tone that is adorable and charming. It just seems like everyone involved in this movie is having fun. Yeah, part of my headcanon also worries that Allyson Hannigan really wants to be part of the shannanigans, but doesn't have her Buffy or How I Met Your Mother friends on set. But again, this is headcanon and based on nothing but the fact that I really like DuckTales.
I'm going to feel really foolish if I mess up this blog. I've never read the novel that this was based on, but I feel like I should be gleaning the right themes for a children's book. The themes were made for children to pick up on. This is a true thing about me: I will volunteer the answers for really hard questions, but completely break all eye contact if a question is really easy. If I screw up a hard question, no one can really throw stones. I show initiative and get a dialogue going. But I screw up an easy question? Then I just look like a moron. I think I get the themes of Flora & Ulysses. But if I screw this up, please cut me some slack. I'm thinking more about today's to-do list than I am about absolutely nailing this blog as the end-all, be-all writing assignment of my life. Also, I am aware that the readership of this entry may be limited, so keep all of that in mind.
As much as this is a story about a girl and her superheroic squirrel, there's a lot going on in the background of this story. Maybe it is just a common thing with a lot of kids' movies, trying to deal with heavy issues that actually affect children, but it is about families, specifically how they can fall apart. DiCamillo's story is absolutely more optimistic than most. SPOILER ALERT: Dad and Mom get back together after going through a separation because of the adventures of the titular characters. My wife absolutely adored that. I think part of me really did too. She commented, and I mostly agree with her, that most kids stories don't get the parents back together anymore. I kind of understand why. It kind of puts the onus on the kid to have larger-than-life adventures in the hopes that the adrenaline rush of saving a superhero squirrel from an evil animal control agent will save a marriage that is falling apart. Here's where I'm split. I'm a big fan of marriage because I love my marriage and my marriage is great. That's me talking from a point of privilege. I also do think it is the responsibility for parents to do everything that they can to make a marriage work. The parents in Flora & Ulysses definitely have real problems. But I don't know if those problems are divorce-worthy. I can see those problems being a real strain, but jumping to separation seemed a bit much. But I also acknowledge that some personalities are more toxic together than they are apart. Basically, I'm a big waffle who keeps waffling all over this issue.
So why a superheroic squirrel? There's a metaphor there, but I want to put it on hold for a cynical look at how writing works. I can see Kate Dicamillo in my head. (In my head, she's just a female older version of my buddy and I'm so sorry for that Ms. Dicamillo.) If I ever had to hit on a topic that would be distracting for 7-10 year old girls, I think superhero squirrel would be at the top of the list. The story of Ulysses is hilariously over-the-top, allowing for real issues to come out in the background of the story. So now, I'm allowed to talk about the metaphor. The story of how Ulysses is a superhero squirrel is an extremely telling one. Yes, Ulysses has an origin story. But that origin story is completely absurd. He's a squirrel who was sucked up into a vacuum and resuscitated. That's it. There's no gamma rays. There's no mutant gene. Flora regularly re-establishes that it was the vacuum cleaner that imbued this squirrel with powers. It's funny how we can lie to ourselves about radioactive spider-bites or gamma bombs giving people powers, but this moment just comes across as silly. Maybe it's the fact that we all know exactly what happened to that squirrel physically, but nothing grandiose happened that leaves us out of the loop.
And that origin story is the thing that really messes with the mind. There's a fine line when it comes to kids' stories about what the rules of reality are. For a lot of this movie, I read the story as this wasn't actually a superhero squirrel. I saw this like one of those squirrels from Disney movies who just does adorable things that mimic human behavior. Like, there is such a thing as a flying squirrel, so I just read into that moment like they were seeing what they wanted to see. But then, the squirrel saves Dad by flying him down? Okay, so I'm meant to completely change my belief in the movie this late in the game. One of two things can come out of this. 1) I'm meant to watch the movie not as a cynic and instead believe from moment one that Ulysses was given super powers from a vacuum. 2) My cynicism is a commentary on adulthood. In the same way that Trix are for kids, kids probably always knew that Ulysses was a superhero. But the adults who were watching the movie are too broken to really believe until we see concrete evidence. Because in my mind, it is Flora who gives Ulysses superpowers.
Flora is the only one who believes in Ulysses at first. It is only when Dad sheds the artifice of adulthood does he believe in the power of this super squirrel. (Oddly enough, Ulysses and Pennywise draw their power from the same source: belief.) It is why Mom is continually on the outside until the end of the story. It's what makes the animal control agent the villain of the story, because he never believes that Ulysses can be special. It is that belief that makes him justify the euthanasia of someone's pet. Because, in my mind, I can't ever fault the animal control agent. I'm the animal control agent. I've never been a pet person and I don't know if that's ever going to change. I get the allure of pets, but I also can't stand when people refer to animals as "fur babies." From his perspective, the animal control agent sees this little girl as a potential victim of a squirrel bite that could kill her. I get that. The family seems wildly irresponsible that they are endangering this kid. But it's the second that you start believing that Ulysses is special that he becomes special. Kids only associate the animal control guy as the bad guy because Pudi plays him as a villain.
At the end of the day, there isn't anything that is going to make Flora & Ulysses memorable. It's a fun movie that I really enjoyed watching with my family. That's the point. It's the perfect entry in the Disney+ archive because it was a fun bonding experience for my family without the emotional baggage that a truly great movie could have.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.