Watch out world – there’s a new superhero in town – and it’s a squirrel named Ulysses! “Flora & Ulysses” premieres on Disney+ on February 19, 2021, and the Disney+ original film is a delightful comedy-adventure that takes its story cues from superhero comic books. WandaVision isn’t the only original superhero content on Disney+!
Flora & Ulysses Synopsis
Flora & Ulysses is based on the Newbery Award-winning book about 10-year old Flora, an avid comic book fan and a self-described cynic. The matter-of-fact ten-year-old’s motto? “Do not hope. Instead, observe.” Recent events, such as her parents’ separation, has exacerbated her world-weary outer shell. Yet she still can’t help detecting magic in the world around her.
After rescuing a squirrel she names Ulysses, Flora (Matilda Lawler) is amazed to discover he possesses unique superhero powers. Throughout the film, the magic starts to develop before her eyes. This is the real message of the film, as Flora begins to hope again. Not only does the squirrel effect her, but also her father and mother, who are going through their own separate character crisis’. Both struggle with their separation and stalled-out careers. Nothing like a superhero squirrel around to help our characters rediscover hope and magic in their own lives! Lena Khan’s “Flora & Ulysses” faithfully recreates the tone of Kate DiCamillo’s 2013 novel.
“Flora & Ulysses” stars Alyson Hannigan (Buffy, American Pie) and Ben Schwartz (Parks & Rec) as Flora’s mom and dad, respectively. Anna Deavere Smith (Blackish) serves as a friendly doctor next-door-neighbor. Danny Pudi (Community) and Kate McCucci (Mom, Supergirl) appear in various scenes, with Pudi becoming the ultimate antagonist to Ulysses. Benjamin Evans Ainsworth (The Haunting of Bly Manor) serves as Flora’s friend and embarks on a character journey himself. Flora & Ulysses is directed by Lena Khan and produced by Gil Netter.
“The book is really popular with parents to read to their kids,” says Khan (Director). “I wanted to accentuate that and make this into one of those movies that kids will love, but adults—whether or not they’re parents—would also enjoy watching. I was excited about making this movie mostly because it was the kind of movie I would want to watch. And it has characters that are real, with emotions that run deep, that are going through stuff that we go through all the time. Behind everything, there’s a message of hope, of the power of love in friendship and family.”
Flora & Ulysses Review
“Flora & Ulysses” is an inventive, sweet story filled with classic storytelling beats (based on our favorite superhero tropes) that appeal to a wide audience. The best part about Disney’s involvement in this film is the fact that Disney owns EVERYTHING, so when Flora is equating the events in the film to superhero tropes, we see examples like Wolverine, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel and more. The comic book pages come to life onscreen. Translated from book to film, these superheroes have the luxury of “appearing” around Flora whenever she is imagining them in her head.
The films CGI budget was spent effectively on Ulysses, who captures Flora’s secretly tender heart, and ours too. He delightful movements and fluffy tail bring out tender emotion. This budget unfortunately did not extend to an angry, stalking cat – which ventures more in the cartoon realm. No cat behaves as this rabid animal did. The cat could have been excised from the film and it would be a lot better for it.
The adventures that follow are mostly predictable, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t enjoyable. Lawler’s acting is just great. She is totally believable as an ordinary girl dealing with extraordinary situations. Lawler perfectly captures the matter-of-fact outlook on life, yet excels at portraying emotion and interactions with other characters like her mom and dad. She grounds the film’s wackier elements.
One great thing about the film is that Copeland’s script changes the book’s “villain” (Phyllis, Flora’s mom) and instead portrays a far more believable relationship between Flora and her parents. The “villain” role is instead filled by Danny Pudi, an Animal Control specialist who despises squirrels, especially rabid ones.
The most intriguing aspect of Flora & Ulysses is seeing the effects of comic book stories on a kid, and how her perspective changes the adults around her. If you like superhero films and comic books, you will love this refreshing perspective. And if you’re a kid yourself, then this film is made for you! Overall, Flora & Ulysses will overthrow cynics everywhere, and is a nice addition to Disney+ original content. Make sure to watch on February 19th!
Behind-The-Scenes – Bringing Ulysses to Life
Disney+ media press kit provides some great behind-the-scenes information on how the CGI squirrel Ulysses came to life:
“I grew up always liking to do things a little differently,” says director Lena Khan. “I try as much as possible in directing this movie to look a little bit outside the norm. Whether it’s the production design, the fun Easter eggs hidden in the background or all the little details in the costumes that inform the characters, we just try to push it as much as we can and make surprising things, and real and grounded all at the same time. Our chief concern is always making sure things are grounded.”
With that in mind, visual effects supervisor Daryl Sawchuk (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and visual effects producer David Feinsilber (The Nun) created Ulysses using a photorealistic approach—but tweaked to make him a little bigger and a lot bolder.
After considering each of the 200-plus species of squirrels worldwide, they decided to fashion Ulysses after the Eurasian red squirrel, with a red-orange base color fur with a very prominent white belly and the tail’s underside and very distinct plumes of fur on the ears. They scaled it up to be a little bit bigger so it would be comparable in size to an Eastern gray squirrel commonly found in North America.
Their biggest challenge was Ulysses’ performance and how to represent the progression of his relationship with Flora. Sawchuk says, “We needed to convey the element of emotion and understanding without breaking that barrier and having it look like a cartoon. We still want to house this in a photoreal world, so it’s not unlike the work I did on Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi,’ which Gil also produced, where we had digital versions of animal characters. Still, we wanted to keep them photoreal. It’s a delicate balance.”
They combed through a lot of squirrel references to authentically recreate how a squirrel would connect with a human—any physical expressions it might show.
In collaboration with DP Andrew Dunn, they came up with ideas for getting shots from Ulysses’ POV, that of a squirrel about 10 inches tall.
Recalls Sawchuk, “We had many conversations with Andrew about what we called squirrel-cam mode or squirrel-world. So, he kind of had some clever ideas about how we might rig up a series of cameras to do some following shots, tracking shots on the ground.”
They decided to do some previz on five key sequences, for the action and the technical planning purposes of how to get this action to take place in a particular environment, which proved to be very helpful when they actually went to shoot those sequences.
They also needed to make sure Matilda was comfortable holding her co-star. In order to plan for some of the puppeteering they needed to do, they brought in live domesticated rats, a similar size in scale to Ulysses, and filmed Matilda interacting with them as they moved around and crawled up her arms, into her lap, and so on. What her hands would do naturally, and get her to think about how these little creatures move and feel when she is actually holding an inanimate squirrel or “stuffie” on set.
Working with the rats beforehand gave her an idea of how she would be picking up and holding the squirrel. They began with her gently picking up the rats for different moments in the movie. Once they started to have a bit of a relationship together, she would put her hand down, and the rat would jump up into her hand. This was a way to subtly tie in some cues of how that bonding and relationship grow throughout the film.
Ready to watch this adorable film? Head to Disney+ right now!