This family-friendly Disney+ adaptation of the beloved children’s books checks all the right boxes of a Disney-kid film although it doesn’t make the most of director Tom McCarthy’s directing style and abilities and feels out of place for an independent film festival.
Unlike previous films that were featured in the Kids Category program at the Sundance Film Festival, Disney’s entry into the esteemed film festival is a studio budgeted film that is more mainstream than it is independent. It is quite a surprise to see a film produced and owned by one of the world’s most powerful and influential entertainment conglomerates and the fact it is premiering at Sundance which prides itself on independent, radical and underheard voices will definitely raise questions as to what the programmers were up to. Sundance programmers have stated that they received more Kids-section submissions than ever this year and it’s surprising that they decided to include a mainstream film in the section. It also surprising given the fact that the film will go to streaming in less than two weeks of premiering at the festival but what a great marketing and PR strategy this is for Disney!
Based on a series of children’s books by cartoonist/author Stephan Pastsis (who also co-wrote his debut screenplay with McCarthy), Timmy Failure is set in Portland, Oregon which is the perfect setting for the oddball comedy and hero’s mission. Timmy sees himself as a private investigator alongside his giant oaf (a polar bear named Total) of a friend who entered his life the minute the boy’s dad walked out years ago. Played by newcomer Winslow Fegley, Fegley imbues the titular character with wit and a deadpan confidence that is hilarious when you hear the lines that come out of his mouth. He, in a way, reminds adult viewers of Fletch. It is with Total that he undergoes various cases in the hopes of receiving payments so he can support his mother and his “booming” business.
His mother (played by Ophelia Lovibond) is incredibly supportive and supports Timmy’s fantasy adventures. Timmy is unpopular and terrible at school, mostly due to not wanting to engage or be interested in learning real-world facts. Timmy is a pain in the ass to Wallace Shawn’s perfectly cast Mr. Crocus, a wise-ass who should have retired years ago. He even antagonizes those that are close to him like the cheerful Molly Moskins (Chloe Coleman) and Rollo Tookus (an actor named Kei). He dubs one girl (Ai-Chan Carrier), who’s supposed to work with him every day as “The Nameless One” and imagines that this kid is at the heart of Portland’s crime-ridden underworld Russian mafia.
As the events of the film unfolds, he encounters various mysteries both real (he loses his mother’s Segway which is the catalyst of the film) and imaginary. But what is perfect about the story is that McCarthy and Pastis create challenges and real world dangers for the titular character to face, even if they’re products of his own making. The stakes are continually high for a children’s film – Timmy is always on the verge of creating a mess or getting himself into real danger that even his mother forces him to try and fit in. You can’t but help and feel pity for Timmy who is played perfectly by Winslow Fegley – the younger brother of Pete’s Dragon star Oakes. Fegley plays with him with brow-furrowed seriousness which at first makes him hard to warm to, especially confusing since it’s a children’s adventure film but it’s due to the debit of the book series and story. What makes him intriguing compared to other Disney-kid films is that he doesn’t fit the typical Disney-kid protagonist which I found to be highly entertaining and memorable.
Along the way of this adventure, McCarthy and Pastis offer plenty of hilarious visualizations of how an undereducated kid tries to understand the world and force him to interact with people that he’d rather dismiss, like the “meter maid” (Kyle Bornheimer) who hopes to date his mom. McCarthy has made a range of adult fare since Sundance embraced him with his debut back in 2003 with The Station Agent. His foray into studio budgeted kid flicks shows that he can ace comedy just as well as journalism procedural. McCarthy excels in creating and writing character-driven films, not to say Timmy Failure is without that, but is less focused on the story being propelled forward by his character than the actual plot itself. Of course, if McCarthy focused on the former, it would be a much more intimate and adult-like film that would actually belong within the lineup of Sundance.
“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Kids Category. At press time, the film was released on Disney‘s streaming service Disney+ on February 7, 2020.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy and Stephan Pastis.
Based on: Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis.
Music by: Rolfe Kent.
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi.
Production: Walt Disney Pictures, Etalon Film, Slow Pony Pictures, Whitaker Entertainment.
With: Winslow Fegley, Craig Robinson, Ophelia Lovibond, Chloe Coleman, Wallace Shawn.