To borrow a term from the great Stan Lee, there are casual comic book fans and then there are “true believers.” The latter never miss an issue of their favorites and, even greater, walk through life inspired by the heroic pillars written in and drawn through those page-turning panels. In the new Disney+ film Flora & Ulysses, we are graced by one of those true believers in a film that has its cape hung up out of sight, tights put away in drawers, and heart smack dab in the right place. The film opens on Disney+ on February 19th.
Played by newcomer Matilda Lawler, the pre-teen Flora Buckman is a bit of a wallflower, but the heroic mindset she has latched onto from comic books has made her a pretty darn good kid. Her favorite hero that pops up in her visualized daydreams is the glowing solar adonis named “Incandesto” (Darien Martin), created by her father George (House of Lies co-star and Sonic the Hedgehog voice Ben Schwartz). Spouting lines like “the righteous never rest,” Flora is very forthright for a girl her age. That kind of internal courage is one of the best by-products of comic books, even if her mother Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan of How I Met Your Mother) disapproves of their childish stigma. There are far worse idols for kids to carry.
When Flora rescues an injured red squirrel from a neighbor’s malfunctioning robotic vacuum running amok, she finds a bit of a buddy and a muse. Flora names him Ulysses (vocal effects by animation veteran John Kassir) and begins to see heightened intelligence and hints of superhero powers coming through this valiant yard rodent. Having a superhero around makes her feel like one too. This is her chance to fight for the weak in her community with reinforcements. That’s if the wily local animal control man named Miller (Community’s Daniel Pudi and director Lena Khan’s good luck charm) doesn’t nab him first.
If Flora has a kryptonite, per se, biking and skipping her way through life, it’s cynicism, a label she self-identifies. When she’s not do-gooding, Flora’s dropping sardonic zingers like “cynics invented contracts even if they live in defiance” or “cynics don’t hope; they see what’s real.” Lawler definitely plays her as smarter than the room, so to speak, in a winsome performance. Nevertheless, this streak of negativity pushes back against her heroic pep. The causes of this come from the action scenes and emotional moments that are made of flesh-and-blood rather than ink and paper.
What’s really jading Flora is the separation and possible divorce of her luckless parents. Her father George is a starving artist who has struck out with comics and now works at an office supply store, feeling every bit of a personal and supportive failure to his family. Matching him, Phyllis is a struggling romance novelist cooked up in her own house unable to write her next book since her husband left. They mean well and love their daughter, but, together, their mutual downward spirals seem irrecoverable.
As principled as her graphic novel icons have made Flora, the blurred lines between creative fantasy and life’s true adversities skew her emotions. That cynicism has her lamenting how “superheroes never show up in real life.” Well, that is precisely where fantasy ends and life defeats it. Superheroes, not even an adorable squirrel, can fix parental problems and mend relationships. The best fantasy can do is escapism that can become a platform for positive coping mechanisms. It is from this place of anxiety amid the amazing that Flora & Ulysses thrives.
Based on Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Award winner and adapted by Ben Copeland (Wild Hogs, Ferdinand, Spies in Disguise), the tangible family themes of hope, disparity, unity, and risks from the source novel create something thicker than fluff. Nowhere near a full “Pixar Punch,” director Lena Khan (The Tiger Hunter) does an admirable job balancing the sunniness with the forlorn challenges. The ending driven by Pudi’s light villain gets a little too zany, but the core before it is sound. For a plucky little film that is well-boosted with slightly self-aggrandizing Marvel Comics love coming from the parent company’s convenient property ownership, this is reasonably brave territory for a pre-teen film. Feel free to drop your own “Holy Bagumba!” with a high-five washed down with a hug. You and the movie have earned it.