Matilda Lawler stars in “Flora & Ulysses,” a pleasant film for kids based on a book by Kate DiCamillo. (Courtesy Disney+)

Matilda Lawler stars in “Flora & Ulysses,” a pleasant film for kids based on a book by Kate DiCamillo. (Courtesy Disney+)

Fanciful films with a squirrel and a whirl

‘Flora & Ulysses’ has a girl and a rodent, ‘Jumbo’ has an Amelie-like woman enraptured by a machine

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Debuting Friday on Disney+, Lena Khan’s “Flora & Ulysses” is fairly typical second-tier Disney, complete with most of the annoyances attributed to such a thing, but it also demonstrates a decent amount of charm and spirit.

Adapted from the book by children’s author Kate DiCamillo — whose works inspired the movies “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “The Tale of Despereaux” — “Flora & Ulysses” tells the story of 10-year-old self-described cynic Flora (Matilda Lawler).

She loves comic books — Marvel comics exist in this world — but she also laments the fact that no superheroes appear in real life.

Her father, George (Ben Schwartz), is an unsuccessful comic book creator, having written and drawn the adventures of “Incandesto,” which Flora lovingly devoured, but no one would buy.

Now George works for an office supply store, and is separated from Flora’s mother, Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), a romance novelist.

Preparing for her new book, Phyllis has purchased an antique typewriter, but is totally blocked and can’t even begin working.

Meanwhile, Flora rescues a CGI squirrel from a renegade robot vacuum, decides to keep him and names him Ulysses.

Apparently Ulysses’ trip through the vacuum and his near-death experience left him with powers. He can type on the typewriter, leaving delightful little poems, and before long he will demonstrate other cool abilities.

Most of the movie consists of keeping him hidden from Phyllis and away from an Animal Control officer (Danny Pudi), who harbors a special hatred for squirrels and fires tranquilizer darts willy-nilly.

A pretty funny character called William Spiver (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), an English boy who has apparently stressed himself out into a state of hysterical blindness, helps.

“Flora & Ulysses” includes any number of crash-bang slapstick scenes as Ulysses constantly looks for food, tips things over and messes things up. But they’re generally quick and painless, and aided immeasurably by the fact that Ulysses does not talk.

Small annoyances include tons of “needle drops,” with a range of songs by Bon Iver, OK Go, Bill Withers, Tom Jones, etc. seemingly stamped from a template.

And blatant product placements feature Ulysses snacking on Pop-Tarts and M&M’s, and Marvel imagery is on display everywhere. (Look quick for a hidden Captain America shield!)

The most troubling flaw is the treatment of non-white characters.

Aside from Pudi as the squirrel-hating villain, Anna Deavere Smith, who’s Black, turns up as George’s neighbor who helps the heroes in several scenes without even so much as a thanks; she even lets them drive away with her car! She comes across as nothing more than a doormat.

The movie’s lone Asian character is a mean newspaper reporter who stalks out of an interview with Phyllis, determined to write a smear piece on the struggling author.

As directed by Khan (“The Tiger Hunter”), however, the movie zips by pleasantly, and makes a nice rainy-day distraction. The final scene between our two title heroes should leave most hearts warm.

REVIEW

Flora & Ulysses

★★ 1/2

Starring: Matilda Lawler, Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Danny Pudi

Written by: Brad Copeland

Directed by: Lena Khan

Rated: PG

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Noémie Merlant plays a woman who falls in love with a carnival ride in “Jumbo.” (Courtesy William Kerdoncuff)

Noémie Merlant plays a woman who falls in love with a carnival ride in “Jumbo.” (Courtesy William Kerdoncuff)

While “Flora & Ulysses” tells the story of a young girl and her friendship with a squirrel, the French film “Jumbo” tells the story of a young woman and her love affair with a carnival ride.

“Jumbo,” available Friday for $12 in virtual cinemas (visit watch.laemmle.com), will be released on video on demand and DVD on March 16.

Noémie Merlant (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) stars as the misfit Jeanne, who has an “Amelie”-like hairstyle and builds spinning, lit-up models of carnival rides in her bedroom.

She works the night shift at an amusement park, cleaning and picking up trash, and seemingly happy at not having to deal with people.

When her spunky, saucy mom Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) tries to set Jeanne up with her boss at the park, Marc (Bastien Bouillon), she balks. And when Margarette takes a new boyfriend, the calm, thoughtful Hubert (Sam Louwyck), Jeanne storms off to her room.

Yet at the park, while polishing the many colored lights on a whirling ride called Move It, Jeanne begins to feel something. The ride responds to her, and moves for her, even preventing her from falling from its heights.

Jeanne is ecstatically happy, but of course, Margarette is less than thrilled. And, as in life, the movie becomes a battle between the “you can’t do that” and the “why not?” camps.

“Jumbo” — the nickname that Jeanne gives her new friend — is fairly subversive, especially in a strange “sex” scene involving oozing black machine oil, but in other ways, it doesn’t really go very far.

Movies like “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Her” use strange romances with non-organic objects to explore deeper emotional themes, while “Jumbo” simply asserts that the heart wants what it wants, and that’s OK.

Writer and director Zoé Wittock, who makes her feature debut, brings a wonderfully naïve, awestruck mood to the movie. It’s probably no mistake that Jeanne’s hairstyle resembles Amelie’s; they’re both wide-eyed observers of life’s small mysteries and wonders.

A carnival is perhaps the perfect place for Jeanne, as she is able to look past the trash and sleaze and see it the way it’s intended to be seen: a place of magic.

REVIEW

Jumbo

★★★

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon, Sam Louwyck

Written and directed by: Zoé Wittock

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

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