Review – A Girl, A Squirrel, And Some Nuts (“Flora & Ulysses”)

There’s been Underdog, Atom Ant, Courageous Cat, Krypto, and even Gleek the monkey, but a squirrel superhero? Based on the children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo, this is a story of a red squirrel that becomes a superhero and never meets Rocky the flying squirrel. Sad.

Her name is Flora (Matilda Lawler) and this ten-year-old girl is a self-proclaimed cynic and comic book guru, thanks to her dad, George Buckman (Ben Schwartz, doing an imitation of Daniel Stern), a failed comic-book artist and man-child, who’s now separated from her mom, once famous romance novelist, Phyliss Buckman (Alyson Hannigan). But one day, an innocent squirrel gets sucked up by an A.I. lawnmower (don’t ask) and, quicker than you can say “origin story”, this little guy not only receives superpowers, but becomes sentient as well! Nice!

Dubbed Ulysses by Flora, this super-squirrel is introduced to William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), a young British neighborhood boy who has hysterical blindness. While mom hates the furry rodent in her home, dad thinks Ulysses is awesome, especially when he & Flora witness his super destructive powers in a donut diner. But the crazed waitress there (Kate Micucci) thinks Ulysses has rabies, so she calls out the super-villain in this story, the wonderful Danny Pudi as the villainously wacky animal control worker, Miller, who’ll stop at nothing to get that squirrel! His entanglement with a psychotic cat is a highlight of the movie.

Even though this story is supposed to be about a super-squirrel and his human sidekick, it centers more on the lives of Flora and her estranged family, which is nice and all, but c’mon! I checked in to see an animal superhero kick butt, get rid of the villain, and save the day, not a Hallmark movie that happens to feature a pretty smart pet that can fly, understand humans, and type poetry. Whereas the first and second acts are ridiculously fun and filled with slapstick gags and hilarious rat-a-tat dialogue, the forced third act falls apart and goes soft. Too bad.

Brad Copeland (Spies In Disguise) wrote a very funny and fast-paced screenplay, but it turned left in the final act, as if he suddenly ran out of steam. Plus there were obvious and gaping plot holes everywhere, like if this super-squirrel is SO powerful, why can’t he break out of a simple cage? However, the sight gags, pratfalls, jokes, and overall laughs are abundant and are aimed at both kids and adults. Still, I have to question the humor in poking fun at blind children, even though the character didn’t mind.

And I gotta give major points to director Lena Khan (The Tiger Hunter). This is her second-only film and her direction is tight, precise, and she knows how to shoot for comedy. For a kids movie, it’s excellent work. Then there’s the star, Matilda Lawler, who shows real promise as a young actress with her charm and charisma, with none of that overt Disney-cuteness. Hannigan is terrific, switching from comedy to drama with ease, and Schwartz is quite adept at physical comedy and schtick, but it’s Pudi that steals the movie with his Community dead-pan comedy takes. Also, look for Bobby Moynihan in a brief, but hilarious cameo.

**Now streaming exclusively on Disney +

Underdog (2007)

If you’re a ‘boomer’ like me, you probably watched a ton of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s & 70’s, and one of the strangest was Underdog, a simple animated cartoon about a bespectacled shoeshine boy/dog hybrid that, after taking an energy pill hidden in his ring, became a flying superhero!

This rhyming superhero animal/human had villains-of-the-week, a sweetheart reporter (Sweet Polly Purebred) who was constantly being kidnapped, and a city consisting mostly of odd animal/human species. But making this cartoon into a live-action movie using real animals as superheroes? Uh. . .yeah, that was a mistake. A big one! Disney made this movie purely for little kids (10 and under) and it shows as the dogs used were real, but using CGI mouth movements when they spoke.

Our hero is a lovable beagle (voiced by Jason Lee) that goes from a disgraced police dog, to being made into a super-dog at the hands of a mad scientist named Simon BarSinister (Peter Dinklage), to being owned by an ex-cop turned security officer in just 11 minutes! Named ShoeShine by ex-cop Dan Unger (Jim Belushi), this beagle can speak perfect English, but only to Dan’s teenage son, Jack (Alex Neuberger). This dog, like Superman, can fly, hear for miles, has super-strength and, for some unknown reason, speaks in rhyme when he’s in superhero mode as Underdog. 

Jack introduces ShoeShine/Underdog to his sweetheart, school reporter Molly (Taylor Momsen), who has a cute Cocker Spaniel named Polly who has the hots for Underdog. Meanwhile, evil scientist Simon, after a serious lab accident, is setting up shop in the sewers to replicate the serum that made Underdog so super-duper, even though his incredible stupid henchman, Cad Lackey (Patrick Warburton) isn’t helping much. As time goes on, Underdog becomes the talk of the city, flying around and wearing a silly super-suit with a cape, saving people & cats. But soon he’s captured by Simon when Dan & Jack are kidnapped.

The third act is the old “take away the hero’s superpowers so they can get them back later” trope, with Simon stripping away Underdog’s powers, only to have them come back later for a climactic fight scene with three powerful German Shepherds. This is one bad movie. The script, written by Joe Piscatella (Space Chimps), Adam Rifkin (Small Soldiers), and newbie Craig A. Williams didn’t even try to write a coherent screenplay with a cohesive story. They just took the original 60’s cartoon and riffed on it, throwing in a bunch of ‘dog jokes’, a barely-there plot to follow, and the worst dialogue ever.

Everything in this movie is rushed, makes no sense, has massive plot holes, and has unnecessary characters. Teen reporter Polly is SO underwhelming and unused, you wonder why she’s even in the movie! Neuberger (his second only movie) simply has no screen presence and can’t act, while you can see that Belushi is just phoning in his role. Oddly enough, it’s Dinklage that’s giving 100% to his mad scientist role and loving it, while Warburton is being his usual Putty (Seinfeld) self. This was director Frederik DuChau’s last movie that he ever directed. He only did Racing Stripes in 2005 and the animated Quest for Camelot in 1998, and both were received poorly. Need I say more?

Yeah, this movie bombed hard at the box office and was so bad that Disney only released it once on DVD, then shelved it permanently! Only very small children will like this movie because of the cute little doggy faces, the sight gags, pratfalls, and goofy antics of adults being silly. Adults, however, who watch this movie will reach for a nearby serrated blade and pray for the sweet release of eternal sleep.

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