A cynic and a superhero
Flora & Ulysses is a fun film for kids with true lessons about marriage
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Perhaps the most common setup in children’s movies is for a young protagonist with true-blue belief in magical possibilities eventually to win over cynical adults. Flora (Matilda Lawler), one of the title characters in the latest Disney+ original movie Flora & Ulysses is different. She begins as a cynic.
True to life, Flora has absorbed the lessons her parents have modeled for her. Her father (Ben Schwartz) has allowed a series of professional setbacks to convince him to stop trying to publish his comic books. Instead he has settled for the bitter grind of stocking shelves at a big box retailer. Flora’s romance novelist mother (Alyson Hannigan) is a victim of success, so petrified by fear of her critics she can no longer bring herself to risk writing something bad. Focused on their individual failures, they’ve both given up on their marriage.
What has Flora taken away from all this? That life is a series of defeats, and it’s better to live without hope than to experience disappointment.
Clearly, Flora is in need of rescue. Or at least a profound attitude adjustment.
Enter Ulysses, a pint-sized superhero disguised by an alter-ego so unassuming, even Clark Kent would envy it: a red squirrel.
Whether it’s leaping treehouses in a single bound or writing odes to cheeseballs, little by little, Ulysses reveals his supernatural abilities, convincing Flora and next-door neighbor William to start seeing the wonder in the world again. And hope, as always, is infectious. Once they see it, others do too.
At times, the movie takes a slapstick, Looney Tunes direction. Instead of Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits, we get an overly enthusiastic animal control officer (Danny Pudi) hunting for rabies-infested forest rodents. The maniacal CGI cat that attacks him at regular intervals may be a bit tiresome for adults, but it’s just the thing to keep kids engaged with the deeper themes of the movie.
And these are well worth their time. In the last several decades, movies from Mrs. Doubtfire to Night at the Museum have treated divorce more as an opportunity for kids to experience positive growth than the trauma it truly is. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal–winning novel, Flora & Ulysses doesn’t pretend that divorce offers kids anything but heartbreak. The film refuses to impose the false, upbeat narrative that her parents’ individual, separate love for Flora is as good as their joined love for her as a married couple.
The story leaves a few minor plot threads as loose ends, and some parents will wish that a few PG jokes involving romance novel covers and comic book characters who don’t wear clothes had been left on the cutting room floor. But overall, for all its pratfalls and fantasy, Flora & Ulysses tells kids some important truths.
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