Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:
Flora and Ulysses, based on the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, is about a comic-obsessed little girl who befriends a squirrel and is determined to help him figure out his life’s purpose. The target audience seems to be the upper elementary/early middle school age range (10-12).
It’s a cute movie overall and was an enjoyable watch. However there were some topics that weren’t handled particularly well and enough potential trauma triggers that it would likely be best to pre-screen or at least do some research before turning it on for kiddos, especially if they are particularly sensitive about animals and pets. It may also be one to avoid if kiddos are in the middle of a big transition period such as divorce or a new foster/adoptive placement as big life/family changes were one of the topics that the movie did not do a great job with.
** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **
How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?
The movie does not specifically address foster care or adoption. However, the main character, Flora, is experiencing a recent parent separation and is struggling with it and her feelings of wanting everything to go back to the way it used to be are likely very relatable. A little boy, William, also comes to stay with his Aunt for the summer after his parents ‘sent him away’, something we later find out is due to his acting out after the death of his father. As a result of all of this upheaval, he is experiencing temporary blindness due to anxiety. While technically he is in the care of his aunt, we don’t really see her much in the movie and William spends all of his time with Flora and her family. So while his story isn’t in the center ring, children may also relate to his experiences of parental loss, being sent to live somewhere new, and mental health or behavioral issues as a result.
A storyline the movie touches on very briefly (and I wish they had explored further) is the idea that experiencing trauma gives an individual superpowers. In this case, Ulysses the squirrel goes through the physical trauma of being run over by a vacuum and as a result is able to fly and communicate with humans. Flora compares this one of her favorite superheroes who also got his powers after experiencing trauma. Most of the time, we talk only about the negative effects of trauma (and there are SO many). But in truth, surviving trauma also causes children to develop resilience and other survival skills which are essentially ‘superpowers’ that enable them to get through difficult things in their lives.
- Asking Adults for Help
One of the things the movie does really well is that it shows Flora going to her father when she has a problem, and he listens to her and tries his best to help. Many times in children’s media we see kids who try to fix problems all on their own or who ask for help and are not believed or the adults are too busy to help. For children who have experienced trauma they have often been left to solve problems on their own or fend for themselves. They may not know how to ask for help or even that they *should*. This can be a great opportunity to talk with them about how Flora seeks out help when she has a problem and what that looks like. You can also reinforce that, like Flora’s dad, you will always prioritize helping them if they are in danger and will always listen to them when they have a problem and aren’t sure what to do.
- Fostering a Hopeful Mindset
The idea of hope and finding magic in the world around you is a theme that comes up a lot in the movie. When we first meet Flora, she explains that she is a cynic- “they don’t hope, they see what’s real”. Her dad echoes this sentiment saying, “There is no magic- we just want there to be so that the world doesn’t feel so hopeless.” They both change their tune as the movie goes on, however, and their friendship with Ulysses helps them realize that hope isn’t a bad thing but something that’s worth holding on to- especially the hope that things can get better and they won’t always feel so dark or lonely as they might right now. This is an important topic to talk about with kiddos from a background of trauma- because they have spent so much of their life focused on survival, they may have trouble with future-planning and believing that things can get better. Ask kids what they’re hopeful about when they think about the future and if they aren’t able to articulate it, you may need to help them. Sometimes it helps to start by setting really simple, short-term goals and finding small things to look forward to.
- Healthy Goodbyes
Saying goodbye to people, both temporary separation and more permanent ones, are a part of life. For children who have experienced foster care and/or adoption, it has often been a prominent part of their life and often the goodbyes they have experienced have not been good ones. Therefore it is important to help them learn how to say goodbye in healthy ways. While Mr. Buckman is staying with his neighbor, she tells a story about how when her husband was away at war and life was very uncertain, instead of saying goodbye they’d say, “I’ll always turn back to you”. This becomes something of a catchphrase for Flora and her family, meaning that they’ll always think of each other, even when they are apart, and remember why they love one another. This can be a time to remind kids in your care that you’ll always ‘turn back to them’ and care for them even when you aren’t physically with them. We also see Flora and her family release Ulysses back into the forest at the end of the movie. Flora says that “there are always other people who need saving” and that it was time for Ulysses to move on. And while we acknowledge that parting is sad, sometimes it’s what is best for everyone and it doesn’t mean that she and Ulysses love each other any less.
- Extremely Poor Handling of A Character with a Disability
William Spiver is a little boy who is sent to live with his Aunt, Flora’s next-door neighbor. We later learn that he was sent away by his parents due to some behavioral issues/acting out following the death of his father and remarriage of his mother. As a result of all of this upheaval, William is experiencing a sudden onset of blindness due to anxiety. In the movie they refer to this several times as ‘hysterical blindness’ a term which has been outdated for many years (It is now diagnosed as ‘functional neurological symptom disorder’ by mental health professionals). Even worse than using this outdated terminology is the way his disability is used as a humor device. He regularly bumps into walls and even falls out of a treehouse. None of the other characters seem concerned with helping him navigate this new disability and the whole situation is handled very poorly. Towards the end of the movie he spontaneously regains his sight at a moment convenient to the plot, after admitting how ‘at home’ he feels being Flora’s friend.
- Unrealistic Resolution to Parent Separation
At the start of the movie, Flora is struggling with her parents’ recent separation and a desire for everything to go back to the way it was. Instead of her parents helping her deal with this life change the movie falls prey to the Disney ‘happily-ever-after’ formula. During the course of the movie, she is able to reunite her parents who remember how much they love each other (with the help of a squirrel with magic powers) and they are one big happy family again. While it seems nice on a surface level, this narrative can be extremely harmful to a child who is experiencing a more permanent life-change such as parent divorce or death, adoption or even entering foster care when it is uncertain whether or not they’ll return to their birth family. Children in all of these situations often long for things to return to ‘normal’ and focus all of their energy on this hope, rather than adjusting to their new life. This is really a case-by-case situation and for those who are in foster care with a goal or reunification, it’s important to talk about their hopes for returning home but also to make sure they understand that whether or not that happens has nothing to with any actions on their part.
- Unhealthy Food Behaviors
When Ulysses first comes to live with Flora, he is obsessed with finding and storing food- looking for it and stashing it in the house and is always thinking about it. As Ulysses is a squirrel this is normal behavior as it’s what his instincts tell him to do. However, it would not be healthy behavior for a human character. Many children who have experienced abuse and neglect have had times where they did not have enough to eat. As a result, they may engage in food hoarding, overeating, or other unhealthy behaviors. Flora’s mom also makes a comment after Ulysses eats all of her snacks that, “Now I can’t eat away my sadness!”. Emotional eating is another unhealthy coping skill that children might have a problem with so it’s something to be aware of and address if needed.
- Unsafe Driving with Children in the Car
There are two different instances where very unsafe driving is taking place. First, William, Flora, and Flora’s dad are trying to outrun an animal control officer who is after her squirrel, Ulysses. Dad has been shot in the arm with a tranquilizer dart and his arm is paralyzed so he cannot shift gears and asks Flora to help. He swerves back and forth across lanes, nearly has a head-on collision with a truck and ends up crashing in a ditch (though everyone appears unharmed). It’s also mentioned casually that William ‘fell out at a stop light’ due to a missing door on the vehicle. After Ulysses is captured by animal control, we again have a car chase where Flora’s parents weave in and out of traffic, speed, and make unsafe maneuvers while both Flora and William are in the car.
- Animal Peril
When Flora first meet’s Ulysses, he is running away from a robot vacuum cleaner in a neighbor’s yard. We see the vacuum headed for him and it actually vacuums him up. Flora opens the vacuum, and he appears stunned but alive for a moment before he passes out. Flora then does CPR on him and he ends up okay- but there are several tense moments during this scene that might be upsetting to sensitive viewers. Later, Ulysses is seized by animal control, locked in a cage and Miller, the animal control officer says he is going to be euthanized for having rabies. He’s transported to a facility where we see lots of other animals in these metal cages in an institutional and unfriendly setting, presumably also waiting to be euthanized. Younger kids may not know what the word means but based on the tone and the reactions of other characters it’s clear that something bad is going to happen to Ulysses.
- Violent Cat that Attacks/Chases People and is Mistreated
There is a running joke that one of Flora’s dad’s neighbors has a cat that is ‘possessed’ and there are a number of scenes where this cat chases people, hisses, scratches and even bites. It is portrayed as very aggressive and might be frightening to young viewers, especially those who have fears of animals. The animal control officer, Miller, throws the cat into a pool after one attack (the cat is fine, just wet, and angry but still inappropriate behavior toward an animal).
- Use of a ‘Weapon’ (children are in the line of fire on multiple occasions)
There is an over-zealous animal control officer, Miller, who is determined to catch Ulysses and insists he has rabies. We see this man shooting the tranquilizer gun at a squirrel target in his office. While we do see that the box says ‘tranquilizer’ if children can’t read, they might not understand and think it’s a real gun as it looks very much like a weapon. On one occasion we see this man shoot these tranquilizers at Ulysses and miss, hitting Dad and narrowly avoiding the children. Later he specifically aims and shoots Flora’s dad multiple times while he is running along a rooftop, causing him to fall off.
About the Author: Jenn Ehlers
Jenn is a central Virginia native who received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012. Since then she has worked for a local mental health agency and the Department of Social Services in various capacities and has been involved in her community’s efforts to create a Trauma Informed Network. Currently Jenn works in vocational rehab and mentors youth in foster care. When she isn’t working, Jenn enjoys writing stories, anything and everything Harry Potter, and spending time with her niece and nephew.
**Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its review to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.