Disney+ has skyrocketed to glory ever since its debut in late 2019, largely thanks to its library of household classics and a handful of must-see originals. Using the term “handful” lightly here since the amount of Disney+ originals are still noticeably short when compared to the output of say Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. This isn’t much of a negative when the few programming they do have dominates the zeitgeist. The Mandalorian and WandaVision have proved to continuously break streaming records and push online trends. Now is much of this success carried by the overwhelming popularity of Star Wars and Marvel? Of course, but Disney+ has been making strides in expanding its variety. The most recent example being the sports drama Safety, which did manage to strike a chord with certain audiences, albeit quietly. How can Disney+ expand into more of these various dramas without it being drowned on the platform? They try to solve this puzzle with their latest, Flora & Ulysses.
Based on the children’s novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo (the author behind The Tale of Despereaux), Flora & Ulysses follows a young girl who comes across a squirrel in a bizarre front yard accident, leading to the little critter gaining superpowers such as enhanced strength and flight. A neat premise for any kids film, but underneath Flora’s ridiculous antics with a chaotic rodent lie heavier themes of redemption and familial bond. Flora is stuck in the middle of her recently separated parents, both writers with polar degrees of success. Her mom (Alyson Hannigan) is an acclaimed romance novelist, the soapy kind of fiction ala The Notebook, and her dad (Ben Schwartz) is an aspiring comic-book writer, whose heroic characters are arguably C-tier at best. His failure to launch a career in a “low grade” field is what inspired their split, and mom’s new case of writer’s block isn’t going to help pay the mortgage.
It’s incredibly easy to cast aside Flora & Ulysses as just another kids movie with an animated animal sidekick. The film does dabble with the expected silliness that comes with having a CGI super-powered squirrel, but its saving grace is staying true to its very human core. Disney continues their strategy of swiping up indie directors for notable projects, and it pays off here with filmmaker Lena Khan. Her feature debut, the 2016 comedy The Tiger Hunter, was brought up through a Kickstarter campaign and it’s exciting to see her name on something as big as Disney+. Much like her previous work, she is able to have plain old-fashioned fun in Flora & Ulysses while still retaining the heartwarming values that keep the viewer watching. Yes, even if CGI animals get too distracting at times, it’s never enough to completely lose engagement – a definite plus when so many people’s attention spans have thinned in the streaming/binging era.
One big thing to note, however, is Flora & Ulysses‘ use of Disney IP. This goes back to the question raised: how can Disney+ highlight more of their various family dramas? The method used here is infusing popular IP into a non-Disney original story. With the nature of this narrative already involving comic-books and superheroes, it’s not as forced as one might initially think. Flora goes to the comic shop on multiple occasions and bumps heads with the shop owner on… just how powerful Kylo Ren is. The film opens with Flora narrating her admiration of comics, with an animated sequence prominently featuring the likes of Ms. Marvel and Wolverine. It can come off slightly hollow – using this original story to prop up popular assets – but the film ultimately doesn’t get overwhelmed by these nods and is just having a good time. If anything, it should be interesting to see if this infusion gets more eyes on the title.
Backed by a strong cast, Hannigan and Schwartz always keep it grounded while newcomer Matilda Lawler is especially charming as Flora, and full of its own share of surprises, Flora & Ulysses is a solid addition to Disney+. Certain jokes miss the mark and the CGI critters often give the audience exactly what they expect – still, a concept like this doesn’t always come with such heart and value. By shinning a sincere light on the power of storytelling, this ends up sitting nicely next to the stronger dramas exclusive to Disney+, like Togo or Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. If one already tunes in every week for the latest Marvel or Star Wars show, why not give time to something as sweet as Flora & Ulysses?