As I’m writing this review, we are on the eve of the Oscars- a night when very important people give awards to movies about very important subjects.
This year’s nominees cover such important but oh-so-serious topics as mental illness, divorce and class warfare. I’ve seen many of this year’s nominees, and they are each quite good in their own ways.
But do you know what none of those movies have? A polar bear detective, that’s what. And an impromptu musical number featuring said polar bear. And a cat named Senor Burrito.
Disney+’s newest original movie “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” has all this and more. It is a very unimportant movie, and it will not win any Oscars. But its craft, its wit and its bucketloads of charm make it a force to be reckoned with.
“We won’t fail, despite what the name says,” fifth grader Timmy (Winslow Fegley, brother of “Pete’s Dragon” star Oakes Fegley) explains. And indeed the film stands tall among other kid-centric films of late.
The titular Timmy Failure is a fifth-grade private detective who solves crimes with the help of his 1,500-pound polar bear partner Total. Their detective agency is called Total Failure.
A detective team comprised of an elementary schooler and a carnivorous bear might raise eyebrows in many communities across the country, but Timmy and Total happen to live and work in Portland, Oregon. On any given day, they are only the 20th or 30th weirdest thing happening around them so they get by well enough. (The film was shot on location in Stumptown, which gives it a delightful local flavor.)
If this sounds like an entirely too-precious kid’s movie – well, you’re half right. It’s smarter than it looks or sounds though. In fact, it was the first Disney-branded film to ever be screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
The fact that “Timmy Failure” doesn’t dissolve into sweetness and silliness is a real credit to director Tom McCarthy. McCarthy, you might remember, was last seen directing the 2016 Best Picture “Spotlight”- another very important film about a very important subject- so a jump into polar bear detective land might seem like a stretch for him.
But McCarthy’s best work – from “Spotlight” to indies like “Win Win” and “The Visitor” to writer-for-hire works like Pixar’s “Up” and Disney’s “Christopher Robin” – has always had a unique humanism to it and a deep respect for his working-class characters. McCarthy has a gift for bringing even the most ridiculous plotlines down to earth and finding his characters’ humanity, and he showcases that gift again in “Timmy Failure.”
McCarthy’s touch is most evident in his treatment of the supporting characters who are given more dimension than your average Disney movie stock characters. The fact that they are played by such talented and funny folks as Ophelia Lovibond, Kyle Bornheimer, Craig Robinson and Wallace Shawn helps considerably. McCarthy has a great track record with actors- he’s directed three performers to Oscar nominations- and the cast of “Timmy Failure” gives uniformly excellent performances too.
This couldn’t have been an easy project for McCarthy to bring down to earth, since he was adapting from a ridiculously silly series of young adult books by Stephan Pastis, whose “Pearls Before Swine” is one of the most consistently delightful daily comic strips in production. Pastis’s comic sensibility is notably more over-the-top than McCarthy’s, and it’s definitely kicked down a notch or two in the script that they cowrote together.
Still, the Pastis touch shines through in the film’s delightful dream sequences. Consider, for example, when Timmy imagines going to prison and running into a burly inmate reading “Eat Pray Love”. Or when Timmy misinterprets a fencing class as a class revolving around the differences between picket and wire fences.
Total the polar bear is also a Pastis original and runs away with some of the film’s most delightful sight gags. Cheers to Oscar-winning special effects supervisor Rich McBride, of “Gravity” and “Avatar”, for making Total one of the most indelible film characters of this still-young year. If you’ve ever wanted to see a polar bear bank heist, this is your chance.
The joke ratio of “Timmy Failure” (rated PG for thematic elements, some language and mild action) starts to lag a bit in the second half, and the film’s hyperactive jumping between Timmy’s cases- among them a missing Segway, stolen backpack and dead hamster- can be a bit much at times. The film is as imperfect as it is inconsequential.
But, man oh man, “Timmy Failure” is fun. And in 2020, when very important things are happening to very important people every day, I’m not going to discount the simple pleasures of roaming around Portland with a 1,500-pound polar bear for a few hours.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.