Holy contingency! Comic book fan Flora Buckman always thought superheroes didn’t exist-until she met Ulysses. A squirrel given superpowers after an encounter with a vacuum cleaner, Ulysses brings a new purpose to the Buckman family, and, of course, the adventure begins. Adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Award-winning children’s book, “Flora & Ulysses” is sure to please the whole family!
Comedy is in the DNA of “Flora & Ulysses” and the laughs here are heartfelt. The cast includes seasoned comedians (many of whom you’ll recognize from the voices from DuckTales!), and former Arrested Development writer Brad Copeland worked on the script.
Comedian Ben Schwartz, who plays Flora’s father George Bachman, a comic book illustrator, was on set as a sort of unofficial comedy dad to Matilda Lawler (Flora) and Benjamin Evans Ainsworth (Flora’s neighbor William Spever). He shared, “Everything they wanted to know, I told them, of course. But they’re both incredible.” Schwartz, who trained in improvisational comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, enjoyed playing with children in the scenes. “Every time I was able to improvise with Matilda, it was a lot of fun because she was so excited to do it,” he explained. And when Ainsworth saw how much fun Lawler was having improvising with Schwartz, he couldn’t wait for his turn. The trio had so much fun that they didn’t stop improvising when the camera stopped-they improvised their own scenes for fun between takes.
As for how much improvisation is in the film, the actors agreed that although they mostly stuck to the script, director Lena Khan gave them room to play. Schwartz said that any improvisation “was always within the boundaries of a given scene and only if it enhanced the emotion or comedy of the scene without carrying it elsewhere.” Actor Danny Pudi, who plays Miller’s villain, added: “Obviously the world is so fully realized,” so no improvisation was necessary.
But improvisation was not the only form of comedy explored on the set of Flora & Ulysses. Of course, if one of the film’s main characters is a super-powered squirrel, there must be plenty of physical humor, too! Actress Alyson Hannigan, who plays Flora’s mother, Phyllis Buckman, explained that “Lena did such a great job of making sure everyone was physically like their characters in rehearsal. Of course, some characters were more physical than others. Pudi talked about being attacked by a CGI squirrel: “As far as being physical, they would give me pillows to put under my shirt, [or] sometimes this weird headless squirrel doll to mimic what a real squirrel looks like, and then there was just a lot of, like, ‘Okay. Just run and dance and twitch your head and move your body,'” he laughs. “Technically I’ve been attacked by several animals in my life, so I used that as acting training.”
Pudi was excited to play the villain in the film. “I came on the set with a real twisted mustache, thinking they’d like it. But as soon as I got on stage, Lena said: “Shave it off,” he laughed. His “Duck Tales” colleague Schwartz enthused: “Danny is the real villain in this movie. It’s unbelievable.”
But Pudi wasn’t the only one to test himself as Ulysses. As Flora, Ulysses’ closest human ally, Lawler often played the role of the squirrel that wasn’t there yet. Sometimes Han would hold a stuffed squirrel so Lawler could get an idea of what it would look like when Ulysses was created in CGI. But “for the most part during the actual scenes I had this gray, creepy thing that looked like a rat. And other times I had nothing, and I had to pretend there was something there even though there was nothing there. It was very interesting and quite difficult,” Lawler explained.
With all the shenanigans of Ulysses, most of the actors were faced with physical comedy during filming. Hannigan and Schwartz laughed about how they had to do a thousand and more bizarre takes for a scene in which their characters awkwardly walked into the audience. Schwartz joked, “You might get a weird supertape of us trying to say hello to each other,” to which Hahn joked, “We have it on our editor’s computer.”
Being on-screen father and daughter, Schwartz and Lawler became very close, and they developed a trick they did on set: someone would say a word to Schwartz, and he would mentally “send” it to Lawler. She could then successfully say the word on the first try. Clearly, there was a real connection between them! A third member of the Buckman family, Hannigan, though he insisted that there was no magic in the trick, feigned indignation by saying: “They don’t want to explain, and how they do it doesn’t say either. It’s so annoying.”
After filming was over, Lawler and Schwartz moved on to writing, becoming pen pals! Schwartz said that after he sent her a typed letter, “her parents gave her a typewriter, I think, for her birthday, and then she typed me back, and now we correspond by typing letters to each other.” So sweet! We know Ulysses would approve.
We can’t wait to see the actors’ obvious chemistry manifest on screen. Witness the emergence of an unexpected hero! Flora & Ulysses is now streaming on Disney+!