Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (Tom McCarthy, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Timmy Failure is a boy on a mission. It’s him against the world, alone in his crusade to fight crime and solve mysteries. Did I say alone? How silly of me! How could I forget his trusty sidekick, a polar bear named Total? It’s them against the world, together in their crusade to fight crime and solve mysteries! Of course, when you’re only 11 years old it can be tough to take such a burden on your slim shoulders, even with a 1500-pound companion backing you up. Still, someone has to do it, and who better than a kid determined to prove his last name wrong? The Total Failure Detective Agency will most decidedly not let you down.
In Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, filmmaker Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) trains his fine directorial lens on writer Stephan Pastis’ eponymous best-selling 2013 children’s book, progenitor of a now 7-book series. An exercise in whimsy that is also an excellent evocation of the risks and rewards of being an oddball in this conformist world, the movie features a winning central performance in lead actor Winslow Fegley’s take on the character. Ably supported by a strong ensemble that includes Ophelia Lovibond (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Craig Robinson (Morris from America) and Wallace Shawn (The Double), Fegley and his CGI friend make of Timmy Failure a delightful exploration of how flights of fancy that may lead to trouble can also be profoundly liberating.
Timmy lives with his single mom (Lovibond) and is in 5th grade, the perils of middle school – or what he calls the “crusher of souls” – looming on the horizon. He prowls the streets of his small town, looking for cases and soliciting clients, all the while ignoring the real problems with which he should be concerned, such as getting his homework done. His understanding parent doesn’t know what to do with him, but she mostly plays along, encouraging Timmy’s fantasies until they prove, eventually, more harmful than harmless. Consistently in conflict with his teacher (Shawn), Timmy can’t stay focused on the classroom, despite the entreaties of his best (human) friend (and erstwhile detective colleague, since fired), Rollo Tookus (played by a wonderful, single-named Kei), who worries about their grade on a collaborative project. When Timmy’s behavior finally causes real damage – when those “mistakes” are “made,” in other words – will Timmy be able to hold on to those qualities that make him unique, or will he become just another boring everyboy?
In fact, the beauty of the story is that, though Timmy is certainly the most idiosyncratic character of the bunch, everyone has his or her own distinctive qualities. Indeed, though no one else may be followed by an imaginary polar bear (oh, sorry, did you think Total was real? plot spoiler!), all have their noteworthy and memorable attributes, from adorable classmate Molly Moskins (the charming Chloe Coleman) to mom’s overly nice meter-maid boyfriend Crispin (Kyle Bornheimer, an endearing doofus) and more. If Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is occasionally (but only occasionally) too cute for its own good, the subversive stubbornness of Timmy steers it back on course before too long, making of the whole a glorious celebration of difference, wrapped in an embrace of cinematic playfulness that brings out the child in all of us.
Film premieres February 7 on Disney+