It’s not every day that a huge studio like Disney has a film premiere at the Sundance film festival. After all, the festival is meant to act as a platform for small, indie features looking to make a name for themselves while also secure distribution from competing studios. And yet, here we are with the house of mouse’s smallest movie since Pete’s Dragon, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. The film, a Disney+ exclusive, is a movie that Disney would have had no problem backing with a strong marketing campaign and theatrical release… if it was the mid-2000s. Times however, have changed. Timmy Failure does not fit the current mold that fans have come to expect from Disney’s theatrical output. So, audiences are left to watch the film on its streaming service, which was a smart decision on Disney’s part.
Timmy Failure is an absolute delight from start to finish, but its obvious why Disney would be hesitant to release it in theatres. The movie-going audience simply will not gravitate towards these kinds of films at the theatre. Having Timmy’s Failure on Disney+ allows for families to easily absorb this adorable yet poignant story about a boy, his 1500-pound polar bear, and the emotions he’s struggling to deal with. Does it deserve to be amongst the indie darlings at Sundance? Maybe, maybe not. What premiering at Sundance does do though is present the film as a legitimate attempt from Disney at telling more mature stories while still keeping in line with their family-friendly brand. Disney’s Timmy’s Failure is not just another throw-away streaming film from a media conglomerate, but a unique take on how children view the world, and the problems that come with it.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, directed by Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy, follows the titular fifth grader as he navigates his way through life while managing a detective agency, Total Failure Inc. Oh, did I mention he has a 1500-pound polar bear partner? Timmy and his polar bear get into their fair share of trouble and hijinks where they deal with classmates, homework, Timmy’s mom, her new boyfriend, and even secret Russian operatives sent to disrupt their lives. Timmy longs to be independent from everything, which of course leads to more trouble, to which he can only respond with one phrase: “mistakes were made.”
What makes Tom McCarthy’s film adaptation of Stephan Pastis’ book series of the same name work so well is that the filmmakers are able to balance the emotional stakes with Timmy’s vivacious imagination. A character like Timmy seems to belong more in a Wes Anderson-type film. Yet, he’s here in a Disney movie, behaving like he’s a hard-nosed, noir-based detective solving the roughest cases his neighbourhood has ever seen. Timmy’s imagination is pounding with new ideas, though some can be misguided. At times, it’s hilarious to watch dangerous situations and Timmy Failure go hand in hand. Over the course of the film however, more about Timmy’s home life is revealed and it becomes apparent that Timmy has used his imagination as a defense mechanism. Through his polar bear, Timmy clearly has a fear of letting people get close to him, evidently caused by his father abandoning the family when he was younger. He relies solely on the relationship with an imaginary bear, and on solving cases, to escape the pain he never asked for.
Timmy Failure does a superb job at not shying away from the problem’s children are forced to face, and how a parent might not catch on to it so quick. After all, playing pretend detective with your polar bear partner doesn’t sound like something out of left field for a child of Timmy’s age. When the emotions are not dealt with though, it can result in deeper trauma, like what Timmy faces in this film. His noir-like detective persona can come off as cold when he’s dealing with other people, including his own mother, but it’s important to keep in mind that Timmy’s just a kid. Under that cold exterior is a boy crying out for help, just in his own way. There is emotion behind Timmy’s actions, and while he may attempt to hide what he is feeling, the audience can see that all Timmy really needs is someone to talk to.
At the heart of Timmy Failure is a terrific performance from its young lead, Winslow Fegley. Fegley shines in the role with his ability to showcase the guarded, imaginative life of Timmy beautifully. His deadpan nature is a riot to watch, and his hard-nosed narration of the film’s events elevates both the film’s lighter, and more emotional moments. Fegley is also to play off his supporting actors wonderfully, with the standouts being Chloe Coleman as Molly Moskins, Wallace Shawn as Mr. Crocus, and Ophelia Lovibond as Patty, Timmy’s mother. Each character acts as a necessary foil for Timmy, showing him in different ways what the consequences are to his actions. But, in their own ways, they all care about his well-being, and each actor is able to convey both sides of the coin in a nuanced, and expressive way. In what may be his best role yet, Craig Robinson stars as Timmy’s therapist. Unlike his previous performances, Robinson is much quieter here, really honing in on the more subtle aspects of his character’s relationship with Timmy. It is through his therapist that Timmy is finally able to let his guard down.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made uses humour and a child’s imagination to convey mature themes without sensationalizing pain and trauma. Growing up is a hard thing to do, and the film’s message of learning from your mistakes is one that any parent or child can understand. It’s very easy to identify with our eccentric titular character, and his problems are anything but uncommon. It’s not about letting the pain you feel define or control you, but learning from it, and allowing yourself to open up to others, and truly let the healing process begin. In the end, Timmy Failure is the kind of story we need right now, and contains superb performances, wonderful music, and a 1500-pound polar bear. What more can you ask for?
Rating – 8.5/10
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made begins streaming Friday, February 7 on Disney+.