Originally destined to be a tentpole theatrical release in May, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the much loved Eoin Colfer books instead premieres as a Disney+ exclusive. It’s a shame in a way, since Branagh’s movie is colorful, kinetic, and highly cinematic with several rollicking set pieces and some Harry Potter-level world building.
On the other hand, the streaming release does at least save fans of the books feeling cheated out of the price of a cinema ticket and a bucket of popcorn as well as a morally ambiguous and frequently ruthless main character. As many predicted, the least interesting thing about Artemis Fowl is Artemis himself.
A 12-year-old genius and criminal mastermind (we know this because we’re constantly being told, not because Artemis displays much evidence of either genius or criminality), Fowl Jr. played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, is the son of wealthy Irish businessman Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell). The elder Fowl has been accused of stealing various priceless items from museums including the Rosetta Stone and The Book of Kells and when he’s kidnapped by a mysterious stranger it’s time for young Artemis and his bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) to take action.
Hidden in his father’s basement, Artemis finds clues leading to an underworld of fairies, sprites, goblins, and trolls and a highly dangerous magical artifact known as the Aculos which is the ransom price of his dad’s freedom. If he wants his dad back he’ll have to not only believe in fairies, but work alongside them too.
If the book draws Artemis as an avaricious anti-hero out for gold, pitted firmly against the fairy world and his foil the morally robust Officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), the film does the opposite. Though initially a fractious relationship, the film quickly sees the two bond over dead and missing fathers and smooths out any questionable motivation on Fowl’s side – not a greedy prodigy who kidnaps a fairy to exhort loot from her people but a good kid who just wants to save his dad.
Fowl is played as smart and precocious – a bit smug, sure – but a criminal mastermind? Er no. Shaw does his best but his Fowl is a vulnerable youngster with a dead mum who just wants to spend time with his father, and it doesn’t really work. Even with no prior knowledge of the novels, Shaw isn’t cocky or charismatic enough to carry the movie and his co-stars – the supernatural ones at least – constantly outshine him.
The fairy world of Haven City fares much better in every way. McDonnell is terrific as the weaponized Elf and fledgling LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance force) officer, Holly, just a youth at 84, she’s idealistic and full of beans. To be fair, she gets to have way more fun than Fowl, dressed like a green Ant-Man, she’s able to fly around, use magic and operate within a “time freeze” – a device used by LEPrecon for damage control when their world collides with the human world. One sequence with an escaped troll decimating an Italian Wedding is a delight. Once the rampaging troll has been apprehended and the humans are frozen in time, Holly and her fellow officers zip around wiping memories and adjusting the scene – it is reminiscent of those Quicksilver moments in the recent X-Men movies, this time to the tune of Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.”
Dame Judi Dench is wonderfully gruff as no nonsense LEPrecon boss Commander Root, and the supporting cast of Haven City – the prison bully Goblins, indignant Dwarves, the tech nerd Centaur – as well as the gorgeous visuals, bring this underworld to life.
It is, however, consciously Harry Potter-esque. Even our narrator, oversized Dwarf Mulch Diggins (a bit of an odd departure from the book where he’s a Dwarf-sized Dwarf – presumably chosen so they could cast Josh Gad) is basically Hagrid in reverse with an American accent and a larceny habit.
Artemis Fowl is a kids’ film and there’s nothing wrong with that. Though the humour is sometimes a bit forced, youngsters are likely to get a kick out of the light-fingered Diggins who can dislocate his jaw to dig tunnels and pick locks with his beard. Gad’s energy isn’t matched by the film’s humans, though Farrell is always a welcome presence.
Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl’s screenplay draws from the first two books, Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, condensing two major plot arcs into one. In a film with a snappy runtime of just 95 minutes this means there’s a lot to get through. Character development is somewhat on the back burner in favour of action, then, which might suit teens with a short attention span but loses some of the nuance Colfer fans love.
As enjoyable escapism Artemis Fowl whips by in a buzz of color, magic, and spectacle, which might be just what you need during lockdown. But don’t expect this to kick off a major new franchise – it’s a fairy tale that’s had its wings clipped.
Artemis Fowl premieres on Disney+ on June 12.