Disney’s Artemis Fowl was never intended to be a standalone feature, but by the end credits, you’ll likely hope this is the last we see of what might be the biggest, most embarrassing whiff in 2020’s already bizarre cinematic year.
Almost as soon as the eponymous novel by Eoin Coifer was published in 2001, Hollywood has had big plans to franchise Artemis Fowl as the next Harry Potter (a plan that would go awry for many YA books and adaptations of the era). But no one could quite crack the film’s “safe” until Disney purchased the rights in 2013, hired Kenneth Branagh as director years later (fresh off his successful stint with Thor), and finally shot the thing in 2018, before subsequent theatrical delays and a global pandemic eventually forced the Mouse House to make this a streaming exclusive on Disney+ this past weekend.
The result? A film as messy as its development, and in many ways the purest representation of how disappointing this past year has been for fans of exciting blockbusters, especially in a moviegoing environment poised to collapse upon itself under even the smallest amount of pressure. If it’s any consolation, New Mutants is just around the corner.
The titular Artemis Fowl is a name belonging to father and son: the father (Colin Farrell) is some sort of unexplained criminal mastermind, and the son (Ferdia Shaw) is a self-described criminal mastermind who turns out to mostly be a precocious kid who likes to delegate. After his father goes missing, Artemis embarks on an elaborate staycation in his manor to draw out a military force of mystical fairies who live beneath the ground. Because…he’s smart. See, if the fairies come to him, and he does a thing, then this other thing will happen, and the macguffin will probably solve everything.
If that makes no sense, you won’t be alone, because according the film’s quasi-established rules, Disney Junior himself shouldn’t understand any of this. He’s both a fish-out-of-water dabbling in a fantastical world he only knows about through books and is just now believing in, but he also has an exceptional brain, the movie repeatedly argues, confirmed only through smart-ass remarks to a therapist about his faint praise for Albert Einstein and a voiceover narration by Josh Gad of all people playing an oversized dwarf, remarking on his intellect while staring at paintings that have nothing to do with Artemis. He’s great because we say he is, and also, he wears a suit for some reason, totally unrelated to Men in Black, of course. It’s just one of many allusions to other pop culture staples that made far more sense 19 years ago than anytime in the last, maybe, 15 years.
At just a brisk 95 minutes or so, Artemis Fowl has clearly been trimmed to its barest bones, to the point where even young children might very well begin their journeys as film critics this summer, pointing out glaring holes in how these characters go from enemies to best friends without any reason or progression, not even lampshaded dialogue. Billed as a fantastical quest where Artemis goes on an adventure to save his father and become a (you guessed it) criminal mastermind, our “hero” mostly spends his time hiding in a house while everyone else does most of the action for him.
It’s almost as if Branagh realized halfway through filming that the character of Officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) is a far more interesting protagonist than a snarky 12-year-old who talks more than he acts. The film’s brightest spots are when we spend time digging into Holly’s backstory and mentor relationship with Commander Root (Judi Dench, channeling a grumpy, frustrated parental figure many watching with their kid will find all too relatable). Her early mission dealing with a troll wedding crasher in Italy is the closest Artemis Fowl gets to an engaging, thrilling action scene that is worth caring about.
But Holly is sidelined almost as quickly as she attempts to salvage what little fun might be had in favor of convoluted plans, barely-explained magical objects, and side characters who could’ve been placed into the film using CGI two weeks ago based on how little they contribute. Part of what makes Artemis Fowl so befuddling is its odd committal to Artemis as an iconic character akin to James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t really change or grow, but everyone around him sort of does, if only through dialogue insisting it so. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it, even for a film aimed squarely at younger viewers.
The source material certainly has its fans, but as an adaption, Artemis Fowl accomplishes the worst-case scenario for a book that was always shamelessly trying to imitate the success of a bygone craze. The movie exposes the book (arguably incorrectly) for being little more than a blend of other ideas, rather than expanding the potential of the narrative to produce something all its own. Sadly, the most original thing about Artemis Fowl might just be how quickly it crashes and burns before even managing to take off.