The recent history of Disney as a film studio has primarily involved a rotation of brands: Marvel, Star Wars, Disney Feature Animation, Pixar, and their stable of lavish remakes all rotate around the release schedule, occasionally finding room for a big-budget fantasy or low-budget family movie with less name recognition (though sometimes still based on theme park attractions). Their streaming service Disney+ brings all those brands together—and also provides new opportunities to re-introduce some variety into the Disney slate. After all, the studio hasn’t always been a four-quadrant blockbuster factory; there are decades’ worth of Touchstone Pictures projects that prove as much.
Two recent Disney+ premieres, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made and Stargirl, aren’t exactly akin to the adult-targeted Touchstone movies of yore. They are, however, smaller and less overtly branded projects than most Disney theatrical releases. Both are based on books aimed at younger audiences: Timmy Failure is a series of illustration-heavy novels for middle grades, while Stargirl is a YA book from author Jerry Spinelli. They’re both about misfit kids, struggling against the expectation that they should act normal and fit in. And they’re both bizarre, disappointing botches of young-adult material. Along with the seeming confusion over what to do with a partially filmed Lizzie McGuire update (put on hold and in limbo) and a Love, Simon spinoff (shunted off to Hulu, just like High Fidelity before it), these movies look like a signal that Disney has forgotten, or lost interest in, how to make stuff without families specifically in mind.
To be fair, a movie of Timmy Failure was probably always going to be aimed at a family audience. But the film version of this self-appointed kid sleuth (played by Winslow Fegley), who narrates his own daring exploits in an elevated tone that belies his general obliviousness, also doesn’t sell itself as a kiddie romp. By translating the books’ playful cartoons into more realistic-looking live action, it affects a vaguely Wes Andersonian deadpan, depicting a kid whose overactive fantasy life removes him from both his “normal” peers and the adults who don’t understand why he can’t stop referring to his detective agency and lazy polar bear sidekick (seen by the audience, and gradually revealed to be imaginary). Specifically, the gap between Timmy’s self-image and his abilities recalls Rushmore’s Max Fischer—not a child prodigy, but a child who self-consciously aspires to prodigiousness.
This is a knotty, worthwhile character type to untangle—or it would be, if Timmy Failure didn’t ultimately see itself as a lightly inspirational story about the power of embracing quirky dreams. After spending much of its runtime performing cutesy winks over Timmy’s cluelessness, the movie ends not by truly grappling with his insecurities, nor even by tying together the threads of his various “cases” in a clever or meaningful way. Instead, Timmy is encouraged to be himself, passing off elaborate delusions as a unique worldview that shouldn’t be silenced by insensitive doubters. That Timmy makes the slightest of gestures toward not intentionally tanking his classes at school or actively harming others is taken as a triumph. It’s a feel-good ending tacked uncomfortably onto a feel-weird movie.
Stargirl more directly confronts the consequences of its quirky lead character’s actions, which only winds up muddling its conclusions further. The title character played by America’s Got Talent winner Grace VanderWaal is what The A.V. Club might have once deemed a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that mischievously altruistic love interest who is immediately and unreservedly drawn to a comparably milquetoast dude. In Stargirl, said dude is Leo (Graham Verchere), who painstakingly over-explains via voiceover that the combination of his father’s death and an early bullying experience left him freaked out and determined to fit in at all costs. The trauma of this bullying and the tragedy of his assimilation seem debatable; as far as the movie shows us, these events have resulted in him growing into a soft-spoken, moderately well-liked teenager with a diverse, close-knit friend-group, membership in several enjoyable and well-funded clubs, and the ability to attract Stargirls by doing almost nothing. To that end, the fashion-forward and ukulele-playing Stargirl arrives at his high school and turns his life upside down—or, more accurately, tilts it slightly to the left.
There’s a scene late in Stargirl so insightful that it nearly destroys the movie. One of Stargirl’s classmates confronts her over what had seemed earlier like a random, anonymous act of extravagant kindness, explaining that (a) it was actually obvious who performed this act, (b) the act was far less kind than Stargirl understood, because of information she didn’t have, and (c) her actions could be easily misconstrued as self-centered rather than altruistic. For a moment, the movie seems profoundly self-aware about the complicated truths behind a performative nonconformist persona and the romanticization of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, allowing its heroine to be affected by this confrontation.
As the movie continues, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are no better-equipped to deal with these issues than Stargirl herself. She cycles through appearing chastened, defiant, whimsically demonstrative, and chastened again (mostly through Leo’s eyes, naturally), before the movie finally somehow concludes that she is a bold free thinker who has altered Leo’s life forever, martyring her social status before leaving town. The nonconformist messaging doesn’t land because the movie takes place in a wan, sexless version of high school that seems further and further removed from any kind of emotional reality with every passing minute. The attempt to blend complexities and blandly inspirational lessons renders every character either incoherent, flat, or both.
If it seems churlish to complain about the quality of projects that could be viewed as a next-gen iteration of Disney Channel original movies, consider that Failure and Stargirl are directed by Tom McCarthy and Julia Hart, respectively. McCarthy is following up his Best Picture-winning Spotlight, while Hart recently made the well-regarded indie superhero picture Fast Color. While fully capable of missteps (McCarthy made an enormous one with The Cobbler, just before he directed a Best Picture), they’re both too talented to dismiss their newest films as High School Musical-level made-for-TV shrugs. Hart even stages some lovely faux-music-video sequences in Stargirl, while McCarthy always regards his characters with a baseline of respect and understanding. Arguably, these movies would be much worse without them.
Yet McCarthy and Hart’s Disney+ projects do ultimately share some kinship with that old Disney Channel franchise. The High School Musical movies re-imagine the teenage experience through the sensibility of an 8-year-old—a little kid’s amped-up fantasy of what coming of age might look like, dramatized with the aggressive artificiality of half-watched late-’90s teen movies edited for network airings. For all of their sensitivity, Timmy Failure and Stargirl involve similar distortions. They feed genuine loneliness and melancholy through a rigorous filtration system until they emerge as PG-rated problems that can be solved by Just Being Yourself.
This is all the more frustrating because there are, of course, PG-13 movies on Disney+ (sometimes by the company’s direct decree: Splash received a PG from the MPAA, but for streaming, Disney took it upon itself to re-rate it PG-13—not something it is technically allowed to do—while also censoring a fairly innocuous bit of nudity). Star Wars and Marvel movies feature high body counts, grim moments of despair and, in their better moments, complicated interpersonal relationships that don’t resolve with the gentle imparting of lessons. The obvious difference is that those movies have billions of dollars at the worldwide box office acting as a tautological encouragement for Disney’s assumption that they work for younger viewers: Everyone watches these movies, so it must be okay for everyone to watch them! There are clear lines those labels won’t cross—the Marvel movies feel particularly squeamish about the details of romantic relationships, less out of censoriousness than an unsophisticated kissing-is-icky sensibility. But the likes of Black Panther or The Last Jedi don’t appear overly concerned with making sure every 7-year-old in the audience relates to every plot point.
Maybe Stargirl and Timmy Failure were produced without a moment of interference from the Disney brass; it’s entirely possible that McCarthy and Hart wanted these movies to be exactly this kid-accessible and would bear full responsibility for what feel like family-friendly compromises. Regardless of whether these misguided instincts are corporate or purely artistic, it’s dispiriting to see Disney using this expansion to branch out into such tone-deaf YA content, rather than deign to make something that might have been a fit at, say, a pre-acquisition Fox. Stargirl and Timmy Failure barely acknowledge the differences between kids, tweens, teenagers, and adults, smoothing out a complicated growing-up continuum into one long childhood. There aren’t any obvious branding signifiers in these movies; no famous characters, no Disney company guys behind the camera, no potential for amusement park tie-ins. Their effect, though, is almost more insidious. It’s the next step in an all-ages Disney universe where even entertainment aimed at younger audiences must be further sanitized, likely as much for parents’ peace of mind as their kids. It’s a worldview based on branding. These movies gesture toward nonconformity, but ultimately they’re all about fitting in.