Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell (Love, Rosie), Josh Gad (Frozen), Tamara Smart (The Worst Witch), Nonso Anozie (Cinderella), Colin Farrell (The Gentlemen), Judi Dench (Cats)
Director: Kenneth Branagh (Thor)
Writers: Conor McPherson (The Eclipse) and Hamish McColl (Paddington)
Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes
Release Date: 12th June (Disney+)
Artemis Fowl is a film that feels like it should have come out at least ten years ago, which makes a lot of sense when you realise it’s been in development since the first instalment of the Eoin Colfer young adult series was published in 2001. In many ways it feels like the ideal time for an Artemis Fowl movie has long passed, but at the same time you’d think it might give it the advantage of hindsight. With so many failed franchises based on fantasy novels to look back on, one might hope they would have finally learned what and what not to do. Unfortunately, the exact opposite has come to pass. Artemis Fowl is perhaps the worst film of its kind since The Last Airbender; a rushed and incoherent insult to its source material that will anger fans and confuse newcomers.
Within the first ten minutes, it’s clear Artemis Fowl has been haphazardly cobbled together and truncated down to 90 minutes in a vain attempt to salvage a troubled production, which has now backfired immensely by Disney’s pandemic-informed decision to throw the film on Disney+ where runtimes don’t really matter. The story is a patchwork of elements from primarily the first two novels, barely held together at the seams by constant narration from Josh Gad’s Mulch Diggums, that flows as smoothly from scene-to-scene as a log smashing against rocks in a high-current stream. The entire film is a never-ending avalanche of exposition as it attempts to cram in every element of this admittedly intriguing sci-fi/fantasy world, with barely a moment to stop for character introspection or even to just marvel at the world. The entire affair just feels empty, as if it was filmed from a barebones placeholder script that they forgot to add interesting dialogue or good jokes to. There’s no genuine heart or emotion going on in any scene in the film, instead simply following the YA formula down to every cliché and just hoping it can emulate its inspirations. Whilst it is perhaps not as thematically insipid as some of its contemporaries, it still ends up being worse than even those films because it had so much more to work with. Artemis Fowl as a series of novels were a unique and exciting take on their genre, and to see it homogenised into just another generic kids’ fantasy film and a poorly-made one at that is an unforgivable insult to the property.
What really set the books apart from other YA stories was that its protagonist began as the series’ villain. If Alex Rider was for kids wishing they were James Bond, Artemis Fowl was for the kids who wanted to be the Bond villain. He was witty, sly, and intelligent beyond his years whilst still being a child underneath, and that made for a compelling and singular lead character. In the film however, both the script and newcomer Ferdia Shaw completely fail to convey that charisma. Instead, we get a bland and unrelatable Artemis that only pays lip service to his supposed advanced intelligence. Most of what we know about Artemis is told to us by other characters rather than demonstrated, and Shaw’s lacklustre performance absolutely doesn’t help anything. Instead of coming off as cool and calculating, he just feels like a kid reading out lines he doesn’t fully understand, and by the time Artemis proclaims himself a criminal mastermind you absolutely don’t believe it. Lara McDonnell fairs a little better as secondary protagonist Holly Short, but her storyline is little more than yet another variation on the “rookie cop looking for their chance to prove themselves” trope and her relationship with Artemis moves way too fast; I swear, they go from meeting as sworn enemies to becoming best friends in, like, half a day?
Josh Gad gives a bizarre performance as giant dwarf Mulch Diggums, growling his way through the film with an irritating gravelled voice, and if you took out his ever-present narration that spoon-feeds the exposition to you, he’d actually hardly be in it. Nonso Anozie brings some charisma as Fowl’s manservant Butler but is mostly just there as another plot explainer, whilst Tamara Smart as his niece Juliet is…there, I guess? I mean, she is introduced randomly out of nowhere and then proceeds to do nothing but hang around in the background; methinks most her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Colin Farrell’s role as Artemis Fowl Sr. is little more than an extended cameo which he feels on autopilot for, whilst Judi Dench tries to out-gravel Gad with her own raspy drawl as a gender-flipped Commander Root (which normally I’d be in favour of, but making Root a woman means excising Holly’s struggle in the book to overcome the sexism in fairy culture).
Whilst Kenneth Branagh is mostly known for his dramas and Shakespeare, he’s directed several blockbusters capably at this point. With a solid sci-fi/fantasy epic like Thor under his belt, you’d think he’d know how to handle another high-concept property, but the truth is there isn’t even a faint whiff of Branagh on this film. Artemis Fowl feels like it could have been directed by any studio shooter, and its few attempts at stylisation bring to mind M. Night Shyamalan’s aforementioned failed attempt at a big budget spectacle. The CGI is competent but unremarkable, whilst the film’s design aesthetic feels bland for a world that, on paper, is bursting with imagination. The only visuals that really stand out are the bizarre ones, like the way Diggums stretches his jaw down to his belly and shoots dirt out of his rear end as he digs. No, really, that happens in the movie. However, if it wasn’t already obvious, the film’s biggest enemy is its editing. It has some of the most egregious cutting in a studio film I’ve ever seen, on par with the likes of Suicide Squad and The Snowman, trimming the film down to the barest of bones and then attempting to cover the seams with constant narration and blatant abuse of ADR, and that’s not even mentioning bizarre flourishes like the several moments it does this weird frame-blurring slow motion effect for no reason. The only technical aspect that is salvageable is Patrick Doyle’s music, which solidly combines Celtic melodies with a more traditional fantasy blockbuster score.
Artemis Fowl is an absolute train wreck from start to finish that makes films like The Golden Compass and The Mortal Instruments look competent by comparison. It completely misunderstands the devilish, cathartic appeal of the source material and tries to instead shove its square peg into the round hole of a generic family adventure fantasy. When it can’t even follow basic storytelling tenants like “show, don’t tell”, you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. It seems like every year Disney blows a boatload of money on some ill-advised blockbuster like The Lone Ranger or The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but Artemis Fowl absolutely takes the cake this time around. A $125 million waste of a promising franchise, dumped unceremoniously onto their streaming platform, where it will likely be overlooked by children who just want to watch Frozen II again. It’d be funny if it weren’t so depressing.
FINAL VERDICT: 2/10