Flora & Ulysses (2021, Lena Khan)

Flora & Ulysses is a perfectly functional multi-quadrant family movie. Khan’s direction is good—sometimes really good—and kid lead Matilda Lawler is good so, you know, it’s fine. I mean, it’d be better if Lawler actually got to be the lead in the movie instead of it splitting between her separated parents, blocked romance novelist Alyson Hannigan and flailing comic book creator Ben Schwartz.

Hannigan’s not good. Schwartz is fine. He’s a little helpless for a grown man, though the film’s take is parents are both equally just kind of not great; it’s unclear why they’re separated. Something about Schwartz’s comic book failing (probably because the art’s not great).

The art not being great is weird because Flora & Ulysses leverages all the Disney cousins—lots and lots of Marvel superheroes. Mentioned in conversation so much Kevin Smith would think it was a little much. They do still have some DC comics in Lawler’s stacks of bagged and boarded floppies (Lawler being a cool comics kid is pretty much only a subplot for the first act, which is a bummer) and there’s a big Man of Steel style riff at the end. But it’s a lot of Marvel Comics references, starting with the opening narration and montage sequence comparing Schwartz’s Silver Age-y unsold superhero to Fantastic Four and Wolverine and Silver Surfer.

So not just Marvel properties, but the new ones.

Oh, yeah, also did you know Titanic is Disney now? Flora & Ulysses does. And there’s a few obvious Star Wars nods for the dads.

Anyway. It’s fine. The third act saves things.

I haven’t gotten around to talking about the Ulysses in the title, a CGI super-squirrel who Lawler saves, befriends, and starts to train to become a hero. It’s supposedly a boy squirrel but if you know squirrels… it’s pretty clear it’s not a boy squirrel. The CGI is so good, it’s kind of disconcerting, like I kept expecting part of the movie to be Lawler pretending it’s a super, soulful, literal poet squirrel. But, no, I was projecting because it looks so real and there’s no emphasizing of the special effects feat it just seems like it eventually has to be a fantasy.

Nope, just a twenty-first century kids movie. Schwartz and Hannigan are a whole lot less realistic than the squirrel—also a bunch of the super-powered squirrel stuff is just a squirrel being a squirrel, which is amazing.

While Khan’s great directing the kids—Lawler especially, but also her new pal Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, who’s in town from the UK for the summer because he’s suffering hysterical blindness, which leads to some really bad jokes but also the summer thing doesn’t matter (Brad Copeland’s script is wanting)—she doesn’t do anywhere near as well with the adults. Schwartz’s blandly appealing unless you think too hard about how bad he is at adulting, Hannigan gets worse the more she has to do, and Danny Pudi is rather disappointing as the local animal control guy after the squirrel. He’s got a couple moments, but only a couple.

Anna Deavere Smith is the magical psychiatrist widow who lives in Schwartz’s complex and offers him the grown up advice he can’t figure out on his own. Smartphones don’t exist in Flora & Ulysses, so I guess he couldn’t just Google. Though, again, it’s entirely unclear why the parents are broken up other than to give it a power of family theme.

Because it’s never about Flora Lawler or CGI Ulysses, who’s awesome, adorable, and always a special effect and never a character, and it’s definitely not about Flora & Ulysses.

But, you know, it’s fine. It’s a kids’ movie. What do you want.

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