crying fowl!

What Happened to Artemis Fowl?

How the YA sci-fi adaptation went from being the next Harry Potter franchise to a Disney+ dud. Photo: Disney Plus

The YA sci-fi thriller spent the better part of the last two decades in an interminable Hollywood preproduction cycle known as development hell. It has languished in a studio vault unseen by the public since concluding principal photography in 2018 — without so much as a single reported reshoot to account for the delay. But on June 12, Disney’s Artemis Fowl will finally begin streaming on Disney+: a less-than-lucrative conclusion to thousands of hours of top-level imagineering at both the Mouse House and its former studio division, Miramax Films. Well before the Stateside arrival of COVID-19, the $125 million Kenneth Branagh–directed fantasy film saw its theatrical release date pushed back repeatedly — an unmistakable sign of studio cold feet — before being downgraded to a direct-to-streaming debut in April, ostensibly due to widespread theater closures over coronavirus concerns.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Originally optioned by Miramax in 2000 and intended for an international multiplex rollout in the vein of Disney live-action adaptations like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, the big-screen extrapolation of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s first Artemis Fowl novel aimed to signal the Burbank studio’s entry into Hollywood’s then-hottest filmmaking quadrant. Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had kicked off the fiction-based-young-adult-movie boom in 2001; that same year, Artemis Fowl went on to become an international best seller, spawning an eight-book series and selling more than 25 million copies to date.

But on its way to becoming the next family-friendly franchise, Artemis Fowl— “Die Hard with fairies,” as Colfer described it — got seemingly lost in the studio shuffle. Various directors and screenwriters signed on and departed the supernatural thriller, which follows 12-year-old criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl II in an epic battle with a hidden race of supernatural creatures who may or may not be behind the disappearance of his father, Artemis Fowl I. The production “never seemed to find the right team,” Colfer said last year, and so the project was handed over from Miramax to its corporate parent, Disney, requiring a complete tonal overhaul. From there, the film’s most significant delay came courtesy of Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox last March, causing the film to compete with an even more crowded roster of films vying for release.

To be sure, even in the coronavirus Summer of No Blockbusters, other studios have managed to eke out unexpected, if qualified, online-only movie hits — Trolls World Tour netted more than $100 million via paid-VOD and Scoob! arrived even more quickly at No. 1 on the iTunes and Amazon Prime digital-transaction charts last month. But given Disney’s continuing commitment to theatrical openings for its megabudget event films — Marvel’s Black Widow and the live-action adaptation of Mulan had releases set for earlier this year that have been pushed to later this year — it’s impossible to read Artemis Fowl’s Disney+ debut as anything but an abandonment of faith. Ahead of the film’s release — and the anticipated reviews — here’s a look back on the disarray.

2000 — Inspired in part by his brother who, “looked like a little James Bond villain” as a child, County Wexford–born primary-school teacher Colfer pens his debut novel plotted around a pre-teen criminal who finds himself plunged into a world of leprechauns, centaurs, elves, and vicious gnomes. Touted as one of the hottest properties at the Frankfurt Book Fair that year, Artemis Fowl is sold to Disney subsidiary Miramax Books and, in a stroke of corporate synergy, studio co-founder Harvey Weinstein options the book for Miramax Films in conjunction with Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions for a reported deal in the “unspecified six figures.”

January 2001 — Lawrence Guterman boards the project as director with Jeff Stockwell (who would go on to adapt such kids-lit classics as A Wrinkle in Time and Bridge to Terabithia for Disney) attached as a screenwriter. But an online petition is mounted to prevent the Razzie Award–nominated director from helming the project. “We believe the director to be adequate for such films as Cats and Dogs [sic] and Son of the Mask, but we find him inadequate for a film of this magnitude,” the petition reads.

May 2003 — Development continues at Miramax, the erstwhile upstart indie behind such indelible titles as Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Pulp Fiction; and Chungking Express. (Artemis Fowl would presumably be distributed under the studio division’s Miramax Family banner.) Colfer confirms an adaptation is still in play but expresses significant doubt about the project’s feasibility. “A screenplay is written. Casting will begin next month,” he tells Seattle PI. “I’m very skeptical, but they assure me it’s going ahead.”

2010 — Although their informal arrangement goes unreported, Oscar-nominated Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, Get Rich or Die Tryin’) meets with Weinstein to move ahead with an adaptation written by the filmmaker’s daughter, Naomi Sheridan. Negotiations drag on for a year.

February-April 2011 — With producers still “unsure of the format of the movie,” Sheridan goes public that he is circling the project in a bid to “get it unblocked,” according to Colfer. The director meets with Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan to discuss her taking the role of Captain Holly Short, an elf in the elite LEPrecon Division who is kidnapped by Artemis in the first book of the series.

July 2013 — Now more than a dozen years into development, Walt Disney Studios announces its partnership with Weinstein to adapt the first and second book installments into a single film (a move made all the more surprising in light of Weinstein and his Miramax co-chairman brother Bob’s acrimonious split from the House of Mouse in 2005). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix writer Michael Goldenberg is brought on for script duties.

But moving from Miramax to Big Disney presents new challenges. The book’s protagonist is temperamentally dissimilar to just about every other Magical Kingdom movie hero. Introduced within the novels as something closer to a villain, Artemis is a thieving member of an illustrious mafia clan largely untroubled by remorse and who acts on a scheme to kidnap a fairy in exchange for a ransom of gold (the character evolves from anti-hero to more sympathetic hero over the course of the books). Tailoring the character to fit the Disney brand and exist on a continuum of instantly lovable leads including Captain Jack Sparrow, Mowgli, and Buzz Lightyear would require significant revisions.

September 2015 — Oscar-nominated Shakespeare stalwart Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Marvel Studios’ Thor) signs on to direct with award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson handling the screenplay. The two work together to smooth some of the character’s rough edges in pursuit of a broader audience. “The idea of a master [of] criminality being sort of a cool thing is something to have a look at again without trying to be, you know, revisionist,” Branagh told reporters visiting the film’s set. “This kid, when we see him in [Fowl Manor], hopefully invites our audience to want to come in and be with him and be in the place that’s crazy and warm but not exclusive. So to that extent, he may be, if not sympathetic, but recognizable a little for all of us.”

December 2017 — The primary cast is announced. After an exhaustive Artemis dragnet that involves auditioning 12,000 boys across Ireland, Dublin-born newcomer Ferdia Shaw, the grandson of Jaws co-star Robert Shaw, is installed in the role. Dame Judi Dench boards the project as Commander Root, the Churchillian leader of an FBI-like magical police force. Josh Gad is cast as the morally ambiguous thief-for-hire dwarf Mulch Diggums, Nonso Anozie (Cinderella) is announced as Artemis’s butler/bodyguard Domovi Butler, and child actor Lara McDonnell is brought on as Captain Holly Short. (Colin Farrell is only revealed as Artemis’s father when the film’s first trailer drops in February 2020.)

March 2018 — With several key below-the-line crew members from Branagh’s 2017 directorial project Murder on the Orient Express joining the project’s creative team, filming on Artemis Fowl commences at the U.K.’s Longcross Studios, continuing in Northern Ireland and Ho Chi Minh City. The production wraps in June.

November 2018 — Sonically backdropped by the melancholia of Thom Yorke’s “Decks Dark,” a teaser trailer for the film drops online with the first announcement of Artemis Fowl’s release date: August 2019.

March 2019 — Disney acquires 21st Century Fox in a massive deal for $71.3 billion in cash and stocks, taking control of the Century City studio’s enormous backlog of entertainment properties (Avatar and Star Wars among them) as well as a slate of unreleased movies already in the studio pipeline. The transaction creates new complexities, with Fox’s impending releases presenting competition to Disney films also heading for the multiplex. To prevent the now-monolithic studio from cannibalizing its own returns at the box office, adjustments are in order.

May 2019 — Disney announces it is punting Artemis Fowl’s release date by almost a year, from August 2019 to May 2020. The Art of Racing in the Rain, an $18 million romance-dramedy featuring no big stars — and unlike Artemis Fowl, not based on any globally recognizable IP — that was brought over from Fox, takes the supernatural thriller’s original release date. It flops.

March 2020 — Showcasing the Branagh film’s significant revisions to the books’ characterizations and plotting, an official trailer hits public consciousness to howls of online discontent from diehard fans. “Now Artemis Fowl, rather than being the antihero arc all us book readers know and love it to be, is … a lame superhero movie?” opined Slash Film, echoing a common refrain. “His fairy foes (Holly and Mulch) are now his allies for some reason, and Butler is his mentor who trains him to be a defender of fairies? It looks cheesy and bad, and no, you can’t even win us over with a surprise Colin Farrell cameo as Artemis’s dad.”

April 2020 — With theaters around the world shuttered due to COVID-19 curve-flattening measures, the studio announces plans to skip Artemis Fowl’s planned rollout and release the movie direct to Disney+ on June 12. Industry observers regard the straight-to-streaming dump as the death knell for Artemis as a film franchise, with the platform’s subscription revenues incapable of generating a return on investment that would justify the movie’s $125 million price tag.

June 2020 — Arriving online within days of Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan excoriating the films based on his best-selling YA book series (“To me, it’s my life’s work going through a meat grinder”) and J.K. Rowling distressing Harry Potter fans around the world by tweeting out a series of transphobic sentiments, Artemis Fowl feels oddly out of step with the zeitgeist. But given the continuing top-ten popularity of kids-skewing titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, Scoob! and Jumanji: The Next Level on the iTunes movies rental chart — and near total lack of competition at the nation’s still-shuttered multiplexes — the Disney film is all but certain to find an audience online.

What Happened to Artemis Fowl?