The Artemis Fowl series of consists of eight young-adult fantasy novels, released between 2001 and 2012, about a preteen evil genius whose criminal brilliance comes head to head with the secret world of fairies and other magical folk.
Fowl is a sympathetic villain, but over the course of the novels ends up something of an anti-hero ally to his mythical friends. His protagonist is Holly Short, an elf cop dealing with sexism in the Lower Elements Police Forces, whom Fowl at first kidnaps and ransoms to her people but with whom he later (tastefully) falls in love. It’s a whole thing, but basically each book adds new layers to the history of the Fowl criminal empire as well as new creatures and legends to explore, allowing Artemis new ways to either redeem himself or slide a little backwards into his old ways.
The Artemis Fowl books represented one of the better series during the post-Potter preteen-fantasy crazy of the 2000s, but a film adaptation has long eluded multiple studios and the rights have been stuck in development hell since 2001.
Artemis Fowl, this year’s first large-scale live-action theatrical release displaced to a streaming service (in this case, Disney+), was in development by the Mouse since 2013 — initially as a partnership with the Weinstein Company (oof). Director Kenneth Branagh signed on in 2015. Slowly the film has come to pass, stuck on a different level of mid-production development hell. Artemis Fowl seems to have been launched from that level of hell straight to Disney+. I have a hard time imagining this film as a big-screen experience. Unlike his Shakespeare material, Branagh’s big-budget directorial work-for-hire is scattershot at best, and this may well be his worst. It’s an incoherently framed, breakneck-paced adventure with no meaningful characters or world-building of any sort. Just a mess.
Artemis II (Ferdia Shaw) is, unlike his literary counterpart, a relatively meek genius kid who just wants his absentee father, Artemis I (Colin Farrell), to pay attention to him. Artemis I is a criminal mastermind who ends up kidnapped by an evil fairy villain due to his connections to the Lower Elements, a menagerie of hidden beings like elves, fairies and centaurs who live at the center of the Earth. After his father is captured, Artemis II and his bodyguard, Butler (Nonso Anozie), hatch a plan to kidnap an elf and ransom her off. Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) ends up in Artemis II’s crosshairs. Hijinks ensue. Although the outline of the plot and several major scenes remain from the first book, the overall tone and approach to the Artemis II character is so drastically altered that the result is a movie that feels pointless, hollow, uninspired.
What makes any of this remotely special if the main character is written as a total drip, his best qualities farmed off to a father character? Farrell was reportedly added in reshoots after the first trailer dropped. The narrative looseness around his presence is noticeable, particularly because the villain he interacts with has no bearing on the movie’s plot despite taking up a considerable amount of screen time hanging out in a dark robe saying foreboding stuff.
It’s enough to make audiences wonder if Shaw’s performance as Artemis II wasn’t strong enough to carry the movie with him as the villainous mastermind. Not interested in shitting on a child actor, but Branagh does everything in his power to keep attention away from the titular character — including a deeply annoying framing / narration device featuring constant reminders that Josh Gad’s devotion to his role as dirt-farting oversized dwarf Mulch Diggums is absolute. He’s a bit character elevated to the star of the show by way of editing and voiceover work. Something must have been terribly wrong with the rough cut if this was the best solution.
Branagh seems to know it’s insufficient, too: At one point, Diggums leans over to fellow gruff-voiced police commander Root (Judi Dench) and remarks: “Listen to the two of us, grunting at each other like a pair of hippos with a throat infection.”
There are other changes from the book that will frustrate anyone who grew up with the material and is looking for a nostalgic stress-reliever. For instance, the first book reveals Artemis’s true motivation is trying to save his sick mother, who had become deeply depressed after the loss of his father. No mother is mentioned here, only lost daddy. In the book, Holly is a child-sized adult given her species and is simply frustrated by the department holding her back. Here she is instead portrayed as and depicted by a child. Her motivation? Find her, uh, lost dad. Lots of missing fathers in this one, for whatever reason. None of it matters.
So much shorthand. So much papering over fundamental issues with performances and trying to tape together a series of sequences with no coherent framing or grace. Branagh’s worst instances as an action director are on full display. Forget Dutch angles. Forget any angles. His camera twirls with wild abandon, CGI elves thrown to and fro without any mass to them. A “time bubble” sequence is visually fine but narratively meaningless, as are most of the scenes in the Lower Elements. Dench must’ve owed Branagh a favor. What even happened here?
Will Artemis Fowl serve its purpose as a pinch-hitter for delays to filming on Disney+ original content — which was the streaming service’s value proposition at launch last year? Hardly. It also doesn’t feel mindlessly entertaining enough to capture the Trolls: World Tour level of childhood audience, and it’s likely to piss off anyone who still cares about the books (mostly those of us who grew up with them a decade ago and have stuck-at-home time to kill). It’s a shame that two decades of development hell brought together another forgettable adaptation of YA literature. In the past, this kid of dreck would end up a $2 Blu-ray at a secondhand media store. Now it will simply disappear into the ether of Disney’s IP library — a dirt fart in the digital wind.