You’re never too young to be a cynic, as 10 year-old Flora (Matilda Lawler) demonstrates in “Flora & Ulysses,” a charming story of hope and resilience.
Flora, an overly articulate and imaginative young girl whose parents are going through a divorce, previously placed all her childhood dreams into believing in super heroes, but all that has changed.
Watching her mother (Alyson Hannigan) struggle with writer’s block and her father (Ben Schwartz) work a dead-end job at a big-box electronic store specializing in sale prices of outdated technology, Flora has no hope because a “true cynic only observes” — her credo for the film.
We meet this precocious young girl as she attempts to negotiate with a comic book store owner, Stanlee (Bobby Moynihan), parting with her coveted collection with the exception of one her father wrote, “Incandesto.”
Knowing full well these heroes only exist in her head to save those from the “darkness of despair,” Flora feels these heroes cannot save her family as “cynics don’t hope, they see what’s real.”
That is until she witnesses the origin story of Ulysses, a regular, everyday squirrel who is sucked up by an out-of-control Roomba-type of contraption. After a quick administration of CPR, Flora and Ulysses are connected, and together they will, as all super heroes must, find their true purpose in life.
The story is narrated by Flora, who shares her every thought as we watch the story unfold, but the narration is definitely from a child’s perspective. Flora’s and Ulysses’ adventures begin as nothing out of the ordinary, but, of course, they become quite extraordinary as Flora and her dad team up to help Ulysses.
We have every confidence in Ulysses, who nails that tried-and-true superhero landing on the first try. Of course, there are the stereotypical “bad guys” or evil villains in the form of a cat and a demoted animal control officer named Miller (Danny Pudi), which ramp up the antics and thrust the story into high gear.
The story is based on the book written by Kate DiCamillo, who gave us “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a family favorite from 2005. Screenwriter Brad Copeland brings this new story to living color, complete with vivid characters and a CGI squirrel with whom we fall in love.
Perhaps it’s the poetry he types on Flora’s mom’s typewriter, purchased to help her bulldoze that writer’s block, or maybe it’s his voracious appetite, but this little guy has a personality that makes you feel as though he is real.
Then, we have the incompetent Officer Miller, who is focused solely on finding this little furry foe and putting him out of commission. Flora and her new friend, William Spiver (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who suffers from hysterical blindness, must hide Ulysses, saving him from certain death. This becomes, dare I say, a game of cat and mouse.
Amidst the growing level of urgency and attempts to prove this squirrel is special, there are plenty of laughs provided by each of the characters’ individual stories and the paths they take. Kate Micucci finds a way to make the most of her character, and we have a lot of fun rooting against Dad’s boss, Chad (Jesse Reid).
This script is smart and witty, but the weight of the film falls on Lawler, who carries the film expertly. She’s a natural in front of the camera delivering edgy and sarcastic-yet-still-age-appropriate comedy that is unexpected and refreshing.
Director Lena Khan has her finger on the pulse of this film every step of the way, remembering to keep the magic alive while not taking it too far as the kids outsmart the adults. To elicit such a well rounded performance from Lawler is just as magical as the film.
And yes, “Flora & Ulysses” certainly follows a predictable arc, but the style of storytelling immerses you into Flora’s world, and we suspend all belief and just enjoy the ride.
Copeland also makes sure to include dialogue and parenthetical comments only adults will catch, eliciting more than a chuckle, such as Dad’s comment about an employee discount of 3 percent being so much better than providing healthcare.
Whether you’re a comic book connoisseur or not, “Flora & Ulysses” is fun for the whole family with its smart banter, adorable characters, standout performances and a story that will make you once again have hope.
Or maybe you even will let those little squirrels go ahead and eat all the food in the bird feeders from now on.
Reel Talk rating: 3½ stars