Is there any career more unfairly represented in children’s movies than that of the animal control officer? In the rowdy new Disney Plus original “Flora & Ulysses,” Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a 10-year-old comic book savant, Ulysses is her unusually gifted CG squirrel (he can fly, for starters!) and overzealous officer Miller (Danny Pudi) is the only thing that stands between this beautiful friendship and a macabre fate for the cutie-patootie super-pet.
Technically, the title duo is only slightly less destructive than your average tornado. Nearly all the movie’s set-pieces involve breaking, spilling or otherwise upsetting tidy spaces, which is no doubt fun to watch if you are Flora’s age or younger, and the type of child who likes to play Godzilla with your Lego sets. It’s also somewhat impressive, if you pause to contemplate the task demanded of director Lena Khan, who had to orchestrate such pandemonium (involving lots of objects flying directly at the screen in slow motion) without the participation of a stunt squirrel — because Ulysses is a very special effect.
With his luxurious auburn fur, adorable tufted ears and capacity to make incredibly nuanced facial expressions — to say nothing of his penchant for poetry — Ulysses is but the latest computer-animated companion in a genre that dates back to “Stuart Little.” For the generation of parents who grew up on such vintage live-action Disney movies as “The Shaggy Dog” and “The Cat From Outer Space,” it’s simultaneously astonishing to see how far this technology has come (Ulysses really does look convincing) and disheartening to realize how little the storytelling has evolved (all the usual clichés still apply).
Adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s illustrated YA novel by screenwriter Brad Copeland (“Wild Hogs” and the godawful “Spies in Disguise”), “Flora & Ulysses” presents its heroine as a “natural-born cynic,” which probably sounds very mature to young audiences but proves inconsistent with the overactive imagination on display. Wryly narrating the entire film — and shouting “Holy bagumba!” anytime something surprising happens — this consistently disobedient kiddo (whom Lawler makes lovable) spends most of her time reading comic books and daydreaming about superheroes.
Flora is unhappy about the recent separation of her parents, stressed-out romance novelist Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) and underappreciated comic book creator George (Ben Schwartz) — which sets up another unreal Disney-movie convention: the idea that kids can or should play matchmaker for their parents. One day, while idling in the backyard, Flora observes as a rogue robot vacuum cleaner chases and ultimately inhales a hapless squirrel. She rushes in to give the poor rodent mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, saving its life in the process.
Flora dubs the critter Ulysses and takes him indoors, where he promptly sets about overturning her room. Around the same time, she befriends a boy her age named William Spiver (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who is temporarily impaired of sight and intermittently British of accent. William can’t see, which makes him a rather awkward sidekick, but once her squirrel destroys the local coffee shop (where comedian Kate Micucci plays a spastic waitress), Flora will need all the help she can get rescuing Ulysses from the clutches of … you guessed it, animal control.
Pudi plays officer Miller like one of the cocky cops from “Reno 911!,” laughably tough-acting behind his tinted aviator specs. He’s effectively a human cartoon character in a movie that’s most appealing when it shifts over to hand-drawn comic frames, and silly as much of the mayhem is, Khan deserves credit for translating such slapstick to live action. Boosted by composer Jake Monaco’s fantastical score, the entire production feels like a gateway drug for Disney’s Marvel franchise (although don’t expect Ulysses to cameo in an “Avengers” movie anytime soon).
It’s easy to imagine a different version of this story, in which the young viewers most enchanted by the notion of adopting one’s very own squirrel might be inspired to become veterinarians or SPCA workers themselves, since such jobs typically attract animal lovers. Instead, “Flora & Ulysses” reinforces the idea that it’s OK to adopt feral creatures, for whom the pound represents the equivalent of that hellacious garbage incinerator at the end of “Toy Story 3.” Empathy for animals is all well and good, but when it comes to discipline and consequences, this impish movie turns up its nose and exclaims, “Holy bagumba!”