Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses is the worst kind of family movie – one filled with cheap humor, phony emotions, and a ton of product placement. There are so many magical films out there for families to view together that I can't imagine why parents would want to subject their children to this thing. A fundamental lack of imagination is on display at every second. Once the core idea is introduced, the picture goes on rote, delivering one scene after another that's reminiscent of a bad sitcom.

Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a 10-year-old girl whose parents are separated. Dad George (Ben Schwartz) is a failed comic book creator; mom Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) is a romance novelist. One afternoon, the neighbor's runaway vacuum cleaner runs over a squirrel, giving it superpowers including flying and writing poetry. Yes, really. Naming him Ulysses, Flora gives the creature a home. She's got to hide him from Phyllis, although she suspects George will find him cool. Meanwhile, local animal control officer Miller (Danny Pudi) gets wind of the squirrel after it tears up a local donut shop and repeatedly attempts to tranquilize it.

Roger Ebert once coined the term “Idiot Plot,” used to designate a movie whose plot could be resolved in a minute if all the characters were not idiots. Flora & Ulysses has an Idiot Plot. George and Phyllis clearly want to get back together, yet neither of them will come out and say it. Hiding Ulysses from Phyllis is pointless, because if she knew about his special abilities, she surely would find it fascinating. (Who wouldn't?) Miller devotes an inordinate amount of time to chasing the squirrel Bill Murray-in-Caddyshack-style when the family could give him literally any squirrel and he wouldn't know the difference.

Of course, that would deny the movie a chance to have a “heartwarming” parental reunion, a finale in which Ulysses has to use his powers to save someone's life, and a ton of lame slapstick humor. It's on that last count where Flora & Ulysses particularly grates. Some of the things the movie finds funny are people getting splattered with food, a person getting shot by a tranquilizer gun, animals smacking into windows or glass counters, and Ulysses eating everything in sight. I've yet to mention William, the boy next door who suffers from hysterical blindness. You get to watch him run into objects and repeatedly fall. Such is the level of knee-slapping comedy in the film.

Flora & Ulysses is a Disney picture. Disney, of course, owns Marvel and Star Wars. Consequently, there are tons of references to both properties throughout. The family doorbell plays the Imperial March, Flora reads Marvel comics, characters wear superhero t-shirts, and so on. That's on top of the frequent nods to M&Ms, the squirrel's favorite food. At times, watching Flora & Ulysses feels like nothing more than a 91-minute commercial.

Seeing a great cast -- which also includes Bobby Moynihan as a comic book store owner and Kate Micucci as a waitress -- wasted on this dull, unfunny, predicable nonsense is depressing. Imagine the movie these people could have made together with a better script. Flora & Ulysses is based on a book by Kate DiCamillo. Maybe it's completely faithful to the source material. I don't know. Even if it is, there had to be a way to adapt it that didn't feel as though a computer had been force-fed the scripts for a hundred brainless family comedies and asked to generate one of its own.

out of four

Flora & Ulysses is rated PG for some mild action and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.