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Canada's Lena Khan makes Disney directorial debut with 'Flora & Ulysses'

Elisabetta Bianchini
·6-min read
CULVER CITY, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 06: Red Cross Courage to Dream award recipient Lena Khan attends the Opening Night of the 5th Annual Asian World Film Festival on November 06, 2019 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images for Asian World Film Festival )
Lena Khan attends the Opening Night of the 5th Annual Asian World Film Festival on November 06, 2019 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images for Asian World Film Festival )

While Disney+ subscribers know that Friday is WandaVision Day on the streaming platform, they'll be getting another treat this week as well: the new movie Flora & Ulysses, directed by Lena Khan, a woman to know as she takes Hollywood by storm.

The director was born in Canada but raised in the U.S. and as she tackled this project with a major Hollywood studio, she stressed that it means a great deal to her to be part of a movement that's pushing for more diversity in filmmaking: in front of the camera, behind the scenes and in decision-making positions.

"It's weird because my being a female minority director isn't something that I think about when I'm actually working but when I'm done, it becomes apparent with the sort of people who are contacting me, asking if I can speak to their daughters...people who are so excited to see that there might be a possibility for them in this industry," Khan told Yahoo Canada.

It's an unconscious thing but we naturally bring more diversity, both on and off screen.Lena Khan, director of 'Flora & Ulysses

She identified that it's critically important to tell stories through diverse perspective, stressing that storytelling can't just be executed through one perspective.

"There are certain nuances that come just by seeing people who have had different backgrounds and come from different backgrounds, even if they're just Canadian or American," Khan said.

"I have noticed on both of my movies now that people who come from minority backgrounds, or women, they don't have as restricted of a lens of the talent pool that they are open to. It's an unconscious thing but we naturally bring more diversity, both on and off screen."

For anyone who is hoping to follow in Khan's footsteps, she says "honing your craft," including finding mentors and critics that will "challenge you to get better" is key.

"You need to have an integrity and a sincerity, and that will end up being a lot more important than people ever really talk about," she said.

"It'll imbue itself into the work that you're doing in the way that you work with other people, and it'll help you with opportunities too."

'My main goal is to make this a movie for adults'

Hitting Disney+ on Friday, Feb. 19, Flora & Ulysses has an all-star cast including Matilda Lawler, Alyson Hannigan, Ben Schwartz, Janeane Garofolo, Kate McCucci, Bobby Moynihan and Danny Pudi, who worked with Khan on her critically-acclaimed film The Tiger Hunter as well.

"I have mentioned many times to people that, if I can, I will put him in every movie I ever make," Khan said. "He's a genius in every way, drama, comedy, anything, he's just so good."

The film is based on the Newbery Award-winning novel "Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures" by Kate DiCamillo. It's ultimately an adventure tale about a 10-year-old girl, Flora (Lawler), who loves comic books and is a self-proclaimed cynic. She ends up rescuing a squirrel (Ulysses) and discovers he has superpowers. All of this happens while her parents, played by Hannigan and Schwartz, manage their recent divorce. While Lawler is working alongside several iconic comedic actors, she definitely holds her own and is just a pleasure to watch.

Khan had a goal going into this movie: to make a family film that would still make adults laugh.

Ulysses and Matilda Lawler as Flora in Flora & Ulysses, exclusively on Disney+. (Disney)
Ulysses and Matilda Lawler as Flora in Flora & Ulysses, exclusively on Disney+. (Disney)

"I told Disney and I would tell my producer, and I would keep saying it...if we ever veered off, I'd say my main goal is to make this a movie for adults, the kids will come," Khan shared.

"Sometimes they'd be like, oh should we do a test screening on our kids? I'm like, no, no, no, we'll do that at the end. Right now, bring your siblings or something like that."

Khan definitely achieved her goal. While the trailer and the summary of the story may make this seem like a childish family comedy, the wittiness of the script (written by Arrested Development's Brad Copeland), and the Easter eggs referencing superheroes and comics that most children will likely not pick up on, are definitely geared to adults — and we appreciate it.

Ulysses kind of has this swagger, he has a lack of impulse control, sort of like Chris Pratt in Parks and Recreation, but he's starting to realize that he has the capacity to become Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy.Lena Khan, director of 'Flora & Ulysses'

Khan said there were even more comic book references that didn't make the cut, including Ulysses looking like Wolverine and the squirrel holding the Infinity Gauntlet (except the Infinity Stones were replaced by M&Ms).

"That got a little too close for comfort for clearances," she explained.

But in the movie, you do see Moynihan's character reading the DuckTales comic. There are even some hidden gems referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Hannigan, and an "I love you 3,000" thrown into the mix for Avengers fans.

If a film where one of the critical characters is a squirrel doesn't appeal to you, it's worth moving past that mental roadblock, because this squirrel is a sight to see. Khan and the visual effects team watched thousands of squirrel videos to keep the motions and physicality as real as possible. But in terms of the personality for the squirrel, that inspiration came from Chris Pratt.

"Ulysses kind of has this swagger, he has a lack of impulse control, sort of like Chris Pratt in Parks and Recreation, but he's starting to realize that he has the capacity to become Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy," Khan said.

Flora & Ulysses may be predictable, veering on a little corny at times, but it also has a sweetness that we could certainly use during a global pandemic, letting ourselves open up to a bit of magic and innocence.

"This movie was always meant to be something that was made for broken people," Khan said.

"I think I was hoping that they would find a way, after seeing the movie, to be able to open their eyes, and open up back to the world again. There might be something there that you're not seeing."

Flora & Ulysses will be released on Disney+ on Feb. 19