Artemis Fowl arrives on Disney+ with the timeliness of a would-be bar patron staggering in just after last call and right before the lights get turned on. The film, based on Eoin Colfer’s hugely successful series about a tween prodigy who makes testy contact with the fairy realm, is one that’s been in the works in some form or another since 2001, when the first book was published. That’s long enough for multiple directors to have come and gone, and for the Weinsteins, who originally bought the rights, to have left Disney, partnered with Disney, and been stripped of all involvement by Disney after the Me Too movement.
It’s also time enough that the once-dominant genre to which Artemis Fowl belongs, the sci-fi/fantasy YA saga, has lost a lot of its big-screen luster. That’s probably one of the reasons that the film, which is no low-budget affair, has been off-loaded to streaming after its original theatrical release was delayed. Another is that the movie is so charmless and hopelessly incoherent that you might feel the need to consult Wikipedia afterward for some help on what it was even about. You’d be shit out of luck if you did — one of the many inexplicable calls made during the long journey of Artemis Fowl to film was one to dump most of the defining characteristics of the beloved source material.
The title character of Artemis Fowl, who’s played by Ferdia Shaw (grandson of Robert) and who’s technically Artemis Fowl II, is still an arrogant 12-year-old genius, yes. But the movie has cleaned the characters up and flattened him out so that he’s no longer introduced as the unathletic heir to a generations-old Irish crime family. Instead, he’s a schoolboy who loves surfing and hanging out with his maybe-shady antiquities-dealing dad (Colin Farrell as Artemis Fowl I) in their cliffside manor. When his father is kidnapped by a villainous pixie named Opal Koboi, Artemis discovers that all the folklore his father had been teaching him over the years is real. Opal, whose motivations remain as obscured as her perpetually masked face, is after an acorn-shaped MacGuffin called the Aculos, which she wants to trade for Artemis père’s life.
The elaborate hostage-taking plan Artemis comes up with is, therefore, not the act of an anti-hero but that of a desperate son who’d do anything to get assistance rescuing his sole parent. It puts him on an eventual collision course with Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), an elf cop working for a division in charge of retrieving errant fairies who’ve wandered to the surface — LEPRecon, for short. Holly, who lives and works in the underground city most of the magical population has retreated to, has been given a backstory intended to awkwardly mirror that of the human boy who aims to abduct her. It nevertheless takes these two dad-less darlings approximately 40 minutes to meet, and another 40 or so to decide to be allies, at which point the movie is just about ready to start wrapping things up.
Artemis Fowl is directed by Kenneth Branagh and scripted by playwright Conor McPherson and comedian Hamish McColl, and the prospect of the three someday spilling the details about what happened with this movie sounds infinitely more enjoyable than the experience of viewing it. A teaser trailer from back in 2018 hints at an initial vision that was very different from the final product — with Judi Dench, as Holly’s commander Root, muttering darkly over shots of cityscapes about the rapacious greed of humanity, and Hong Chau, who’s been cut out of the film entirely, appearing as a transforming fairy. Somewhere along the way, the film was so chopped down and mangled as to be rendered difficult to even follow. One character, for instance, switches allegiances so abruptly, with no indication as to when or why, that it feels like there should be a “scene missing” intertitle in there somewhere.
Another character gets a teary-eyed death scene that’s longer than the rest of his screen time put together. Artemis spends the movie furious that the media has been implying his father is a thief, and then ends it declaring himself a criminal mastermind despite having committed no straightforward crimes that we’ve been privy to. The film is about a treasure hunt that never goes anywhere, and its big setpiece involves the LEPRecon forces storming Fowl Manor under the stealth-enabling dome of a time-freezing device. The movie dedicates an elaborate earlier scene to demonstrating what this technology does, then never bothers to show us how Artemis and his bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie), who are unaffected, figured out a way around it.
There are all sorts of possible explanations as to why adaptations like Artemis Fowl have fallen out of fashion. The market was oversaturated, there were as many expensive misses as hits, and a sense of audience exhaustion can be mapped right onto the fade-out of the Divergent series, which started big in 2014, and declined from there to the point where the final installment was first bumped to television, and then canceled entirely. Readers get older and inevitably leave once-beloved books, or, in the case of J.K. Rowling, their transphobic authors, behind. But to watch Artemis Fowl is to also feel like studios have maybe lost the thread when it comes to what was appealing about these would-be franchise launchers in the first place. The movie isn’t slavishly faithful enough to its source material to please hard-core fans, and yet its many tweaks don’t improve or make it any more compelling to the uninitiated. There’s not a trace of wonder or joy to its world-building, which enlists visuals that look recycled from other recent blockbusters and centers on woefully uninteresting action sequences.
Worst of all, Artemis Fowl has no faith in its audience’s ability to handle a protagonist who’s not out to save the world. It doesn’t even trust its audience to follow its story without endless, draggy exposition. The film is narrated by the tragically inescapable Josh Gad, who plays a dwarf named Mulch Diggums who can tunnel by unhinging his jaw and expelling the dirt he’s eating out of his asshole at an intense velocity (as spectacles go, it’s … haunting). His explanatory scenes, set in an interrogation room and delivered directly to camera, have the whiff of a framing device that was inserted after the fact, an attempt to desperately glue together a project already long past fixing. At least those 19 years in development have ensured one thing — it’s just enough time for the first round of book readers to disappoint their kids with the movie.
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