The passive voice is crucial to the title of “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” a Disney kid-detective caper with a clear enough moral: that owning your errors and apologizing for them is an essential part of growing up. If any individual mistakes have been made in the film itself, however, they’re as hard to pick out as any particular flourishes of inspiration: This wholesome, gently paced adaptation of cartoonist Stephan Pastis’ quirkier children’s book (the first in a bestselling series) feels more or less assembled by committee. That’s to be expected from an all-ages diversion intended for mass consumption on the Disney+ platform. It’s more surprising, however, coming from independent writer-director Tom McCarthy. In his first feature since 2015’s Oscar victor “Spotlight,” the quiet humanity of McCarthy’s filmmaking meshes oddly with the material’s zanier demands, finally reaching an anodyne middle ground.
“Timmy Failure” isn’t the first aberration in McCarthy’s directorial oeuvre, of course: Together with 2014’s bonkers, Adam Sandler-starring swerve into magical realism, it forms a very curious sandwich around “Spotlight’s” sober filling. At least it’s a more amiable exception. Never less than innocuous, “Timmy Failure” is most appealing when it’s grounded in realism, as the story of a fanciful, solipsistic fifth-grader learning to see the world through eyes other than his own, whilst still indulging in elaborately imagined cloak-and-dagger fantasies.
It’s on shakier ground when actually envisioning his inner world. In an otherwise modestly scaled production, a hefty chunk of the film’s $40 million budget has been dedicated to digitally realizing the protagonist’s imaginary sidekick Total, a 1500-pound polar bear who somehow never seems quite tangible either in Timmy’s world or the one around him. There to deliver the film’s most large-scale stabs of incidental slapstick — most of which fall a bit flat in these otherwise low-key proceedings — the CGI beast can’t help but feel like an oversized imposition of Disney-scale whimsy in a film that never quite settles on its point of view: Are we in our young hero’s head, or among his bemused onlookers?
Played with brow-furrowed seriousness of purpose by Winslow Fegley — younger brother of “Pete’s Dragon” star Oakes — Timmy is somewhat hard to warm to for a protagonist in a children’s adventure. That’s unusual, but not a debit. Eccentric but not quite precocious, charismatic but not plainly lovable, he doesn’t fit the Disney-kid mold any more than he fits into his bewildered peer group, and McCarthy’s script, co-written with Pastis, is sympathetically attuned to his misfit status — at least, until the film’s more formulaically kerr-azy hijinks take hold. Living with his loving but growingly concerned single mother Patty (Ophelia Lovibond) in Portland, Oregon, Timmy has fancied himself a pint-size private eye from an early age, establishing his own self-styled agency with stern dedication and a battered old dictaphone.
With Total as the wordless ursine Watson to his suburban Holmes, he sets about solving a chain of non-event cases, as minor mishaps like a missing backpack and a dead hamster add up, in Timmy’s overworked imagination, to a wild conspiracy theory complete with sinister Russian agents. (Right down to the disused analog technology he favors, Timmy is a boy with at least one sneakered foot planted firmly in the previous century.) Even young viewers are likely to recognize these plot threads as shaggy-dog nonsense; the film’s narrative weight, such as it is, lies in how these fixations distract Timmy from the challenges of real life, whether it’s moving house, making peace with Patty’s dorky-sweet new boyfriend (Kyle Bornheimer) or slowly learning to look at girls a different way.
There’s a darker edge to Timmy’s delusions of grandeur and intrigue that, not surprisingly, goes largely untapped here: The suggestion that his father’s departure years earlier triggered his retreat into macho gumshoe roleplay is lightly made, though the extent of his psychological trauma is glossed over in favor of cheerier self-help lessons courtesy of Craig Robinson’s kindly school counselor. Fair enough: This is a family romp, after all. Yet it’s when “Timmy Failure” tries to crank up the fun factor that it turns bland and impersonal, with McCarthy’s already light directorial imprint vanishing entirely in strained, flatly staged setpieces of mild monkey business. A climactic chase sequence at Portland’s Bonneville Dam feels particularly underpowered — one place where the absent and otherwise arbitrary polar bear would be a welcome complication.
At its best, “Timmy Failure” points to a respectable new future for the Disney after-school special, with an ending open to further adaptations from Pastis’ series. Though McCarthy has brought his regular editor Tom McCardle and superb “Spotlight” DP Masanobu Takayanagi on board, “Timmy Failure” feels very much shot and cut to a house style: As with the recent Disney+ remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” despite the involvement of A-list crafts artists, even those pricey visual effects don’t feel expansively conceived. Sure enough, the film’s most affecting scenes — mostly those belonging just to Timmy and Patty, played with winning, frazzled tenderness by Lovibond — are its most intimate and domestic in scope. “Normal is for normal people,” Timmy is fond of saying with a sneer; for the film around him, however, normal will do just fine.