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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Flora & Ulysses is a cute little family comedy that’s pushed over the top by a cast that manages to sell both the goofy humor and the heartfelt message.

Holy Bagumba!

Flora (Matilda Lawler) with Ulysses
Flora (Matilda Lawler) with Ulysses

Based on Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Award-winning children’s book, Flora & Ulysses tells the story of a 10-year-old cynic named Flora. At such a ripe young age, she’s already jaded by the world’s penchant for broken promises, shattered dreams and other disappointments. At the top of the list is the challenges her parents are facing; they’re on the brink of a divorce and neither is financially sound. Her dad, George Buckman (Ben Schwartz, Sonic the Hedgehog), is a floundering comic book artist who’s been beaten down by the system. Her mom, Phyllis (Allison Hannigan, TV’s How I Met Your Mother), is a romance novelist struggling with writer’s block in the wake of her own romantic failings.

At the core of it all is a remarkably sharp performance from Matilda Lawler as Flora. It’s always a big gamble when a movie’s central character is only 10 years old and, naturally, without much of a resume. When the screen gods shine favorably on such young performers, it’s the stuff of movie legend and careers are launched, as with Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. When things don’t go so well, it can be tragic both on and off the screen, as with Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Here, Lawler owns the role of Flora. She delivers lines like “Cynics live in defiance of contracts!” with conviction while also delivering “Holy bagumba!” with just the right amount of innocent awe. She’s a discovery and it’ll be interesting to watch this one’s career progress. Without her smart embodiment of the lead character, Flora & Ulysses would’ve been grounded.

Condorman and Shobo

This is the kind of amiable romp that’ll make you believe a squirrel can fly. Yeah. That’s a fitting pop culture reference given this movie is chock full of ‘em. Flora & Ulysses is the rare live action children’s movie that gives even the big kids a reason to laugh out loud; at times the absurdist sensibilities are a little bit like The Simpsons meets Pixar, at other times, the witty pop culture-fueled dialogue pokes fun at comic book tropes while also acknowledging their significant contributions to creativity.

To that end, poor little Flora is on the cusp of breaking up with comic books as her inner cynic starts to overtake her youthful optimistic outlook. She sells off a part of her stash at a comic book shop that channels all the comic book dark (and grey) matter of The Big Bang Theory.

If there’s a reason to be a little cynical toward Flora & Ulysses, it’s in its pop culture gene pool. The vast majority of the references center around Marvel, Star Wars and Titanic — all entertainment properties now owned by Disney, the same studio behind this flick. Even so, it is a cute touch that the Buckman residence doorbell rings out a chimey version of the Imperial March. And the humor isn’t all in gushing praise of those properties (for one, Phyllis is a little bothered by that doorbell).

A highlight of Phyllis’ writing career was winning the Jack & Rose Award, a silly statue commemorating an iconic movie moment of romantic exuberance. But, as Flora’s cynical side deftly observes, “Nothing says living like the Titanic.”

Even set against those bits, Flora & Ulysses works in its own creative world, one in which Flora’s dad is the creator of a number of superheroes, including Incandesto, a janitor turned heroic pillar of light. And there’s also a fleeting bit of visual humor — perhaps not woke — involving the hero Shobo, a homeless, but mighty, Shogun warrior.

Flora the Explorer

Put all the silliness aside and there’s still a message to be had, one that would make Simon Sinek proud.

The story focuses on Flora and the most unlikely of situations: a squirrel getting sucked into an automated vacuum and left for dead, were it not for Flora having studied up on CPR in Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, her go-to guidebook for surviving life’s challenges.

With the squirrel back among the living and subsequently dubbed Ulysses (after the name of the device that almost brought his demise), Flora notes the squirrel’s own life-threatening challenge has found him coming out the other side of it with a fresh outlook and a whole new skillset, just like Peter Parker with that spider bite or — to step outside Disney’s turf — like Bruce Wayne coping with the loss of his parents. A new world of possibilities and a new mission is born.

That life-altering event sets the stage for the movie’s recurring theme surrounding creativity and finding your purpose in life. Using comic book superheroes as the lens through which that message is softly nudged and prodded while Flora’s parents contend with life’s nuisance challenges that interfere with all the good stuff is a crafty way to bring it all home without succumbing to the slightest bit of preachiness.

Through it all, there’s a substantial amount of heart guiding the Buckmans through their vicissitudes and Flora & Ulysses offers a sweet nod to the simple magic of childhood itself. With the world — hopefully — seeing the light at the end of the pandemic, the movie also offers a timely reminder the world is still full of wonder and magic.