The best part about an indie movie becoming a critical or commercial hit is watching what the filmmaker does next. Do they take that success and use it to helm a big-budget blockbuster? Do they follow up with another personal film? If you’re Academy Award-winning writer/director Tom McCarthy, you take the success of the hard-hitting Spotlight and make a detective noir movie for kids co-starring a 1500-pound “pet” polar bear. The result, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is a delightful new addition to Disney+ that somehow still makes sense as McCarthy’s next project, and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Based on the books by Stephan Pastis, the Disney+ Original stars Winslow Fegley (brother of Pete’s Dragon actor Oakes) as the titular Timmy Failure, a quirky 11-year-old kid who fashions himself as a hard-boiled detective running his own agency in the streets of suburban Portland, Oregon with his partner, Total, a 1500-pound polar bear. Right out of the gate, Fegley’s performance sells the weird premise of the movie by playing it completely straight. Sure, the bear may or may not be a part of his imagination, and no, he isn’t exactly Sherlock Holmes, but what matters is that he’s completely confident that he’s the world’s greatest detective. Fegley addresses his classmates, teacher, and his mom’s new boyfriend with a deadpan manner, allowing the characters around him to play with the kid’s dry wit to hilarious results.
Timmy usually takes on small cases, like a missing backpack, but one day the Segway scooter he uses as his main source of transportation disappears. Timmy immediately suspects foul play, so he draws out a list of suspects that, of course, includes Russian operatives. And so begins one spectacularly weird case that may or may not be all in Timmy’s head.
What makes Timmy Failure special is the way McCarthy and Pastis (who co-wrote the script) portray Timmy’s imagination. Not only does this provide an avenue for McCarthy to do some experimenting with ambitious and oddball sequences, such as an extended Broadway musical scene, but it also helps add depth to Timmy by showing us how he uses his imagination as a defense mechanism. The film works as a fun caper movie, but also an exploration of how kids process the world before they fully understand it – like how Total enters Timmy’s life (and his kitchen) just as his dad abandons him and his mom. McCarthy brings his filmmaking crew back together after Spotlight, which serves to give Timmy Failure some gravitas, like the way DP Masanobu Takayanagi shoots the movie with bird’s eye views and tracking shots that help alleviate the concerns from those who scratch their heads at the thought of a Disney+ movie playing at the Sundance Film Festival.
Though the film has a sizable budget ($42 million), it quickly becomes apparent that the money is stretched thin. The fully CGI polar bear that serves as a co-star is the biggest victim of this and as the film goes on, you see less of the bear…and when you do see it, it starts to look like a video game character. Likewise, though the film’s message of embracing mistakes is an important one, the film doesn’t really know how to properly express it, leaving it to Timmy to simply spell it out in a speech where he tells his classmates that he needs to adapt to the real world, even if we don’t really see him changing or adapting at all. That being said, it may be more of a case of the film wanting to hit the reset button before a sequel comes out, especially watching Timmy act as a hard-boiled detective is simply too much fun for only one film.
Like last year’s The Kid Who Would Be King, Timmy Failure serves as a reminder of a time where a PG family film could be more than a made-for-TV movie or an animated film aimed at kids. Tom McCarthy gives us a film that serves for a fun family movie night, complete with important lessons, deadpan humor, and, well, a polar bear.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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