Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Not only does director Lena Khan’s FLORA & ULYSSES, a perfectly-pitched adaptation of author Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Award-winning novel, contains a talented ensemble who are adept at exploring deep comedic nuance, they also are skilled at bringing out the heart-infused underpinnings behind it. The film centers on a young, cynical girl Flora (Matilda Lawler) who believes that a squirrel she resuscitates has superpowers. The pair find themselves caught trying to make her parents (played by Alyson Hannigan and Ben Schwartz) believe in magic again – all whilst evading the terrible grasp of the villainous animal control officer (Danny Pudi).
Both DiCamillo’s source material and the film have a zesty comedic spirit to them. Khan credits the book for laying the groundwork from which to springboard.
“The blueprint for most of the stuff that happened is in the book, so we were lucky there. We got to play with stunts off of buildings and car crashes. It’s just kind of written in Kate’s brain and our writer Brad Copeland’s brain, who wrote for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. He put all that kind of weirdness and fun into the movie. And then it was just kind of making it all weird, which our lovely cast did. It was a lot of fun making things a little crazier.”
For the most part, they used a computer generated squirrel since their taxing demands would’ve been too much for real trained squirrels to handle. That said, they did attempt it. Says Khan,
“We did use…I got to have two squirrels on my laps and they were trained, and they did tricks. But they couldn’t do everything that Ulysses did. So then we kinda just had to create Ulysses.”
Pudi, the overly-dedicated pursuer of Ulysses after he’s named the cause of destruction to a local donut shop, was able to tap into his skills doing a lot of physical comedy on this project.
“They would give me pillows to put under my shirt. Sometimes this weird, like, headless squirrel mushy doll to simulate the VFXs what the real squirrel would look like. Then it was just a lot of, like, “Okay. Just kind of run, dance, jerk your head around, and move your body.” It was like dance, it was just letting go. It looked like I was getting electrocuted a lot, just running around.”
Lawler found working with a co-star who wasn’t exactly all there to be a fun challenge.
“Lena, you were kind of my squirrel at some points. You had this little stuffed animal squirrel that you would pretend was doing the scenes, so I could kind of get an idea of what it would be like. And then, for the most part, during the actual scenes, I had this, like gray, creepy rat thing that kinda looked like a rat. It was really, like, kind of creepy. Some other times, I didn’t have anything, and I had to pretend there was something there when it was nothing. It was definitely interesting.”
Though there’s many different styles of comedy in the funny feature, there wasn’t an egregious amount of improv Pudi and Schwartz, whose character has become disillusioned with his life, really did. Schwartz says,
“Lena gives us room to play. But it’s always within the boundaries of what that scene is and only if it heightens either the emotion or the comedy of the scene without bringing it somewhere else. I know Matilda and I definitely improvised a couple times, which was very exciting.”
Despite Schwartz’s twitter handle being “@RejectedJokes,” it was Pudi who had one of his jokes flat out rejected by Khan.
“I showed up to set with a real twirly-ish mustache thinking, like, “They’re gonna love this. It’s gonna be a huge, twirly mustache. I’m gonna villain it up.” And as soon as I stepped on stage, Lena was like, “Shave it. I don’t know what you’re trying to do. It’s a little too much.”
Hannigan, whose character’s romance novelist career and marriage is in the dumps, loved getting to play up her character’s more awkward side with Schwartz.
“Lena was so great about establishing everybody’s physicality with their characters during rehearsal and everything. I remember having a lot of fun trying to work out the awkward entrance with Ben of our [greeting], like, “Do we hug? Do we shake hands?” I love anything where I get to be awkward. Honestly, I could’ve just done that all day. Everything we did was just sort of different. I think at one point I felt your nose.””
“There were 1,000 takes of that. There could be a weird super cut of us weirdly trying to say hello to each other. It’s very fun to act [with her]. Like Alyson has been in so much comedy and she’s been doing such great stuff for so long. It’s, like, so fun for that moment to try to find it with her and with Lena.”
FLORA & ULYSSES premieres on Disney Plus on February 19.