Review: ‘Artemis Fowl’ is finally here, and boy are you going to be disappointed
When the teen fantasy novel “Artemis Fowl” was published in 2001, its Irish author, Eoin Colfer, reportedly described it as “‘Die Hard’ with fairies,” a prepitched movie if there ever was one. Nearly 20 years later, after a delayed release from August 2019 to May 2020 and an additional coronavirus postponement, the film adaptation arrives Friday not in theaters but on Disney+, and it’s closer to the later (and lesser) “Spy Kids” movies than anything with Bruce Willis.
Marketed to pre- and younger teens, the eight-book series about a villainous prodigy doing battle with weaponized fairies made regular appearances on bestseller lists, with a reputation for being a tad naughty and slightly subversive. Its prolonged trek to screens has not been kind, as the property has clearly been reimagined for a younger audience, perhaps the offspring of its original readers.
Scrubbed, sanitized and neutered of its edgier elements, “Artemis Fowl” the movie likely will be unrecognizable to the books’ many fans. Gone are the hardboiled dialogue, anarchist wit and psychopathic avarice of the protagonist. Heck, he’s not even a villain or antihero anymore, just another superkid trying to rescue his father.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the movie opens with a sweeping shot of the Irish coast before settling on sprawling Fowl Manor, home to the title character (played by Ferdia Shaw), his father, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell), and their imposing bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonsi Anozie, a Branagh regular).
The tale is largely told by one Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a fairly unreliable narrator who we come to learn is a giant dwarf (or at least thinks he’s one). The script by playwright Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl mines the series’ first two books for plot points, and this narrative device feels like an ex post facto attempt to save a botched story.
In it, Artemis Sr. is a dealer in antiquities suspected of stealing valuable ancient artifacts from around the world, and his secretive behavior supports that notion. A scholar of Irish legends, particularly leprechauns, banshees, sprites and goblins, he’s passed this lore along to his son, assiduously training him in the ways of that world, but at age 12, young Artemis has become a skeptic.
That changes when Senior disappears from his giant yacht in the South China Sea. The phone at Fowl Manor rings and a raspy voice on the other end, belonging to a shadowy female fairy, demands that Junior locate the Aculos, a powerful and dangerous device, in exchange for his father’s safe return.
It seems that the tales Artemis Sr. has been spinning are true, and that fantasy world indeed exists in a city at the center of the Earth, its inhabitants driven underground by humans in a battle thousands of years earlier.
With the help of Butler and his young niece, Juliet (Tamara Smart), Junior must understand the magical world to find the Aculos. Simultaneously, a feisty fairy named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), an officer in the Lower Elements Police Recon (LEPRecon) force, has surfaced to track down a rogue troll.
In his intricate quest for the Aculous, Artemis Jr. kidnaps Holly, bringing all the locked-and-loaded might of the fairies, led by Commander Root (a game Judi Dench, sporting pointy ears and spiky hair), to the human world where they initiate a time freeze (to remain unseen by anyone but the inhabitants of Fowl Manor). When Dench bursts out of her armored vehicle and growls “Top of the morning!” you feel embarrassed for leprechauns.
There’s not a lot of originality here. In their black suits and sunglasses, blasting fairies out of the sky, Junior and Butler look like an intern edition of “Men in Black.” Gad’s Mulch could be a grimy relative of Hagrid from “Harry Potter.” The militarized fairies recall the tech-savvy elves in animated movies such as “Arthur Christmas” and “Prep & Landing.”
There is a “been there, seen that” feel to the whole enterprise. No knock on Shaw, who plays Artemis with measured intensity and seriousness, but the screen version of the character is pretty bland. He surfs, rides some type of hoverboard through the nearby woods and shows disdain for authority figures at school, but he’s simply not that interesting, though the movie tries hard to convince us otherwise.
We’re repeatedly told he’s an off-the-charts genius, but the results play more as clever and resourceful. Granting someone a tragic backstory does not a character make. In one very on-brand Disney tweak, they’ve killed off Artemis’ mother, Angeline (she merely suffered from debilitating mental illness in the books), and made her absence the point of his sullenness.
This is not a “but the book was better” argument. It’s simply that by abandoning the original character and cobbling together broken story shards and spare parts, Branagh and company have produced something off an assembly line: safe, generic and utterly disposable.
For parents looking for something to occupy the young ones after their 400th viewing of “Trolls World Tour,” “Artemis Fowl” may feel like manna from heaven — and apart from a snippet of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” an earworm-free safe space.
But anyone looking for entertaining young-adult fantasy adventure might as well move along. There’s nothing to see here. Like magic, storytelling seems a lot less enchanting when it becomes mechanical.
Rated: PG, for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Available June 12 on Disney+
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