Witness the tween-age protagonist of the new Disney+ movie “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.” The diminutive, prepubescent Timmy, proud owner-operator of a private detective agency in Portland, Ore., tools around the city on a Segway, draped in a distinctive red scarf, unconcerned with what others may think. Speaking in a deadpan monotone, he is prone to responding to interrogatives with a curt “affirmative” or “negative” and saying things like “normal is for normal people.”
Oh, and his partner is a 1500-pound polar bear named Total, who wandered down from the Arctic.
The most notable thing about the movie itself, which debuted last month at Sundance, is that it was directed and co-written by Oscar-winner Tom McCarthy of “Spotlight.” Based on a series of books aimed at middle schoolers by “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis, “Timmy Failure” boasts lovely Pacific Northwest locations and feature film-level production values, but is largely indistinguishable from the type of fare typically found on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon.
Timmy, played by Winslow Fegley, lives with his mom, Patty (Ophelia Lovibond), who holds down two jobs and wears Sleater Kinney tees. Eager to move his operation downtown, the young detective takes a case involving a classmate’s missing backpack. When he ignores a quick and obvious solution to the mystery to focus on forensics and an investigation, we quickly discern that Timmy has bigger things on his mind.
His vivid imagination and an obsession with connecting the possibly unconnected dots between the death of a classroom pet, the disappearance of the Segway, a peer whose name he refuses to speak and an odd Russian connection, further make it apparent that these are not simply the workings of a creative mind, but a kid intent on evading reality.
Poised on the precipice of middle school, which Timmy has no intention of attending as he plans to end his formal education with fifth grade, he doubles down on his resistance to study or do anything resembling “normal.”
It’s vexing to his single mom, who struggles to make rent each month as she is called in regularly for conferences with Timmy’s frazzled teacher Mr. Crocus (Wallace Shawn). With a suspension looming over his classroom behavior, Timmy is referred to a kind counselor, Mr. Jenkins (an affable Craig Robinson).
“Timmy Failure” has more in common with McCarthy’s quirky character-driven indie films “The Station Agent” (with Peter Dinklage), “The Visitor” and “Win Win” than “Spotlight” or the dark Netflix YA drama “13 Reasons Why,” for which he directed the first two episodes.
But the movie leans too heavily on quirk to express character and we are left as annoyed at Timmy’s antics as the adults in his life or the kids in his class (save the one girl who finds him “fascinating”). Anyone over the age of 10 (maybe five) will be way ahead of most of the gags, many of which involve the delightful digitally-rendered Total inadvertently wreaking havoc with his girth and Timmy sighing, “That’s a demerit.”
There’s a sequence about an hour in when “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is briefly jolted from its hard-boiled slumber. It’s a glimpse at what the movie might have been, with deeper emotions and a hint at more complex themes. It doesn’t last long, but it’s enough to finally engage the audience. More such scenes may have elevated it from simply being fodder for a streaming service.
Rated: PG, for thematic elements, some language and mild action
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Available on Disney+