Seemingly years after anyone who grew up reading the Artemis Fowl books lost the ability to recall the series’ main characters’ names, Disney’s beleaguered adaptation of the futuristic-fairy YA series has been unceremoniously dumped on Disney+. As most reviews will tell you, the film itself is pretty much a Disney minus, a hodgepodge of ideas from Eoin Colfer’s original book series and clichéd studio movie tropes, the result of more than a little of the story’s connective tissue being left on the studio’s cutting-room floor. Those who are uninitiated into this book universe will probably be left wondering if the book series was just a mess to begin with (it was pretty fun … take it from a guy who once dressed up as Artemis Fowl for Halloween) and will be in need of some sort of guide to the baffling detours Disney took somewhere along the development process. There are simply too many changes from the book to the screen for us to chronicle in full, but let’s focus on seven of the most important:
In the movie, Artemis doesn’t start off as a criminal mastermind.
The most distinctive aspect of the book series is that we meet the young, Irish, superrich, super-genius Artemis Fowl while he’s already a part of his family’s vast criminal enterprise. He’s charmingly amoral, and primarily invested in exploiting the world of fairies so that he can make money for his relatives. In the movie, Artemis is still a super-genius, and demonstrates an intricate knowledge of antique chairs, but he isn’t aware that fairies are real and in possession of great futuristic powers until the action gets started and his dad disappears. Which brings us to our next change …
The movie really foregrounds the hot dad.
In the first Artemis Fowl book, Artemis’s dad (a.k.a. Artemis Fowl Sr.) is missing and presumed dead after a run-in with the mafia, and he doesn’t even show up until the second book. The movie, however, leaves out the mafia and, seemingly because they hired Colin Farrell to play said dad, really goes all in on glamour shots of the elder Artemis looking good in flashbacks and teaching young Artemis encoded lessons about fairy myths that just so happen to come in handy later. I’m not going to complain about the presence of Colin Farrell in a movie, but this does have some unfortunate consequences. Because in a Disney movie, if one parent is alive, the other must be dead. So the movie also goes ahead and announces that Artemis’s mother is dead, rather than simply sick as she is in the book. Artemis’s decision to use some of the money he acquires via crimes to heal her at the end of the book is a big part of his slow arc toward morality.
The movie adds a big, glowing MacGuffin that was never in the book.
No studio movie is safe anymore without a glowing cube or orb or other spiffy geometric device that everyone has to race around to find. The film version of Artemis Fowl shoehorns one of those devices in the form of the Aculos, a glowing acorn-like thing that has all sorts of dangerous and yet unspecified powers. The book series has plenty of cool artifacts (including a C Cube supercomputer that was central to the third book and also my Artemis Fowl Halloween costume), but no Aculos. Artemis focuses mostly on extorting gold from the fairies in the first book, and when they eventually break into his manor, their big discovery is a tome on fairies that he’s been using to outsmart them. In the movie, the Aculos ties together a lot of unrelated plots in the books, and reconfigures several characters’ motivations. For instance, it turns out that Artemis Fowl Sr. stole the Aculos, and that the archvillain Opal Koboi is also after it. That leads to another big change …
The archvillain Opal was seemingly crammed into the movie at the last minute.
Throughout the film, we hear from (but never see the face of) a shadow figure who has kidnapped Artemis Sr. and wants the Aculos for herself. That’s Opal Koboi, a megalomaniacal pixie who doesn’t turn up until the second book in the series, and becomes Artemis Jr.’s nemesis after kidnapping his father. It seems like, at some point, Disney decided that Opal should be the main antagonist, and had cast and crew members Emily Brockmann, Charlie Cameron, and Jessica Rhodes stand in for the character as body doubles. Opal’s voice is so heavily distorted it’s hard to tell who actually voiced the character, but several outlets claim that the great Hong Chau is playing the part. That may just be because Chau appears in an early trailer, and in a deleted scene you can watch on Disney+’s extras tab, as a fairy who is posing as a healer in Ho Chi Minh City (a scene that also takes place in the book). Chau herself has said she did not make the final version of the movie, though she did get “a nice letter from Kenneth Branagh informing me that they changed quite a bit of the story, so they had to cut the part I filmed.” “Quite a bit” is, well, quite the understatement.
Holly Short has a new backstory.
In the name of father-issue symmetry or something, the movie has grafted a whole troubled backstory onto another primary character from the books: Holly Short, a junior fairy officer who’s trying to make her way through the ranks in the fairy underworld’s LEPrecon squad (the reconnaissance division of the Lower Elements Police). In the books, Holly’s mostly just troubled by her hatred of humans (due to the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death), and the fact that the male Commander Root doesn’t take her seriously. In the movie, in a bit of Old Deuteronomy-ing, Judi Dench plays Root, and Holly’s backstory revolves around the fact that her father was expelled from the fairy world as a criminal. (As you might guess, he was actually working with Artemis Sr. — whodathunkit!)
The movie gives Artemis a new kid friend.
As in the book, Artemis’s primary companion in his big Irish manor is Butler (Nonso Anozie in the movie), who is not actually a butler but is a super-skilled martial artist. Butler’s younger sister Juliet also appears in the books, but in the movie that character gets aged down from peppy teenager to be Butler’s young niece, played by Tamara Smart. The change feels like Disney gesturing toward including more female and nonwhite characters in its movies, because sadly Juliet doesn’t get much to in the movie except help out in the background of fights and suggest that Artemis should eat a sandwich.
The movie isn’t very funny, or rather, is actively unfunny.
A crucial part of the fun of the book series is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Eoin Colfer finds ways to wink at his whole futuristic magical universe. There’s a good joke, in one book, for instance, about how the fairies constantly monitor human communications for clusters of words about fairies in case someone is trying to reveal fairy existence to the world, but that process keeps on turning up crossword puzzles. The movie’s humor, in contrast, is entirely leaden, to the point that it has Judi Dench disembark from her fairy air transport and say the phrase “top of the morning.” The movie also has Josh Gad narrate the whole affair as the dwarf Mulch Diggums (the book has a third-person narrator), an attempt to provide some levity that just ends up ringing broad and hollow. But, hey, at least we got the pure horror image of Josh Gad fully unhinging his jaw to swallow dirt whole. Sadly, in the book series, Diggums can also unhinge his jaw, and is indeed famous for his farts, so we can’t blame Disney for that.