In 2001, Irish author Eoin Colfer published Artemis Fowl, an exceptionally popular young adult fantasy novel that would go on to span eight books, spin-off novels, short stories, graphic novels, and now, a motion picture from Disney. Plans to adapt the book had been in the works ever since its publication – no doubt driven by the groundbreaking success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise and the subsequent rise of YA fiction series such as The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent. Unlike those series, which made their path to film screens relatively quickly, Fowl fans despaired as their beloved property languished for over 12 years in development hell.
Be it divine or infernal intervention, driven by producers at Disney and beloved Irish director Kenneth Branagh, Artemis Fowl has finally made its way to the silver screen, just in time for a global pandemic, a new US election cycle, and nationwide protests to push it out of the public consciousness and onto the Disney+ streaming platform. But hey, if you’re tired of the endless nightmare that watching the news has become, you can at least take solace in a 90-minute children’s film from Disney, right?
Unfortunately for Branagh, Colfer, and fans of the Artemis Fowl franchise, this film is about as poor an adaptation of a YA novel as I could possibly imagine, it may be the very worst of its genre that I have had the displeasure of watching. Its closest peer is not Twilight, which at least had the benefit of pleasing its fanbase, or Percy Jackson, which at least benefited from basic filmmaking competence, but A Wrinkle in Time, which it seems to match both in its incompetence at achieving even the most basic coherence in storytelling and in its absolute refusal to please fans of the original source material. Artemis Fowl is a failure beyond imagination.
It has been a long time since I read the first Artemis Fowl novel as a child (if memory serves me well I didn’t bother reading further into the series), but from memory, the original book centers on its title character, a young, amoral child with high criminal ambitions. Colfer describes him as an 11-year-old bond villain. Branagh’s Artemis isn’t anything of the kind – this child is a supergenius, has very little respect for his peers, but is ultimately not motivated by greed or power or any selfish desire. He’s not altruistic or kind but he’s generally a decent person, committing criminal activities if driven to it but for not personal gain.
We learn in the opening segment, told through an unnecessary framing device by Josh Gad, woefully miscast as oversized dwarf Mulch Diggins, that Artemis is a troubled child, misunderstood by his peers and far too smart for his own good. His only close companion is his father, whose name he shares, played by Colin Farrell, who is obsessed with stories of fairies and other magical creatures, and often finds himself taken away on mysterious business.
Most of this information is told to the audience. Told specifically, not shown. Gad rushes through this opening, besides a quick sequence in which Artemis uses his deduction powers to torment a school psychologist, we don’t get any time to see him interact in the world outside of magic. We don’t see Artemis with other children his own age, we don’t him in class, we don’t see him interact with the only other character in the house, his butler. The film’s so into its exposition that it barely has any time for poor Artemis.
But bad exposition isn’t the worst crisis facing our protagonist, as he soon learns that his father has been kidnapped, and his only means of returning him home safely is to find somewhere within the house a powerful ancient artifact. Unable to find it on his own (for some unexplained reason), he engages in a convoluted scheme involving the world of fairies to trick them into finding it for him. And that’s the film – almost all of the 90 minutes is spent in search of that object, with precious little time is spent actually using it or trying to rescue his father. Artemis Fowl feels like the first act of another movie. It’s not a complete experience. It only exists to set up a sequel that, considering how universally despised this film has been, will likely never come. Who in their right mind would build up a fantasy world involving fairies, dwarves, goblins, and all kinds of magical creatures only spend the whole movie in some kid’s house? Who in their right mind would want to see that movie? I don’t want to speculate, but I can at least assure my readers that I certainly didn’t want to see this.
The “real world” that our protagonist occupies is bland and underdeveloped. Almost no time is spent there, and we get almost no sense of what that life is actually like. But perhaps even worse is the mystical world of the fairies. We get some glimpses of the fairy world, a futuristic city at the earth’s core that seems straight out of a Star Wars prequel, though with better effects and about half of the development.
It’s here that we meet several important characters for the film: Holly Short, a military officer (played by Irish actress Lara McDonnell); Briar Cudgeon, a power-hungry military officer and a spy for the main villain, whose part could have been easily cut with very little impact on the story (played by English actor Joshua McGuire); and Commander Julius Root, a military commanding officer (played by Judi Dench, making a yet another poor career decision after her last role in Tom Hooper’s Cats). The film is absolutely stuffed with characters, very few of whom have discernable personalities, and none of whom the film actually has the time to pay much attention to. Because of the ticking clock action elements, the film has very little inclination to indulge in the wonder of the world – one of my early beloved childhood memories was seeing Harry Potter first enter the world of the wizards, and taking the time to see the magic unfold around him in ways that he could not possibly comprehend.
Artemis Fowl has no time for that sense of childhood wonder and amazement, no time for sentiment, no time for humor even. Besides a few awkward gags by Josh Gad, none of which garner a laugh, Branagh seems to have absolutely no interest in being funny. The characters don’t banter, they don’t crack jokes, they barely even smile. For some reason, he tried to suck all of the fun out of family adventure movie. What’s even the appeal anymore?
The characters in Artemis Fowl barely even interact. When they interact, it’s all shop talk – we need to do this to get the thing so we can do that. But character development doesn’t come by relaying plans and information, it comes from different characters learning to relate to each other, there’s absolutely no part of this film in which characters try to do that. No one tries to have a real conversation, no one learns anything about the other characters. It’s like the film is completely disinterested in who populates their story, and any element of their personality that appears is purely incidental. It’s set dressing, and it doesn’t ultimately inform the plot or the characters’ actions within it.
Not even the action scenes work. The fights are too shaky, the camera can’t hold still, and it feels like essential shots are missing. I’m left wondering whether I just missed something in watching these scenes or whether there were shots that they somehow forgot to get during either its original shooting or during the extensive reshoots. Characters appear in different locations without shots showing how they got there, in the middle of action scenes where that movement may be difficult for them to do – maybe the mistake’s on me, but I don’t care enough about the film’s story to rewind and check to see what happened. I just want this experience to be over and done with so I can do something more productive with my life.
I suppose I can at least give the movie that it’s over soon. Standing at a little above 90 minutes, it’s hardly pushing itself as some sweeping epic. Is that a positive? In a sense I suppose when the results are this painful. But being short isn’t a virtue if they aren’t giving themselves time to develop the story. Artemis Fowl could have used some length, another half-hour maybe, to develop these characters, develop their world, and indulge just a little bit in the fantasy of the setting. I’d rather a movie that outstays its welcome but has the time to at least develop its characters and story appropriately than a movie that handicaps itself with pacing and length it can’t possibly sustain. Though considering how badly they screwed this up, maybe I shouldn’t be so optimistic they could have improved the movie with more time. It might just come down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material and general incompetence.
It’s a shame because, after waiting for so long, fans deserved a movie they could at least grasp onto. For the record, Artemis Fowl is not a bad movie because it differs from the source material, but it’s very likely that those same impulses that led to the filmmakers differing from the source material also influenced other creative decisions that caused the film to fail. I’m not a sycophant for this franchise, I’ve read one of the books a long time ago and I don’t remember it that well. And so, you can take my word for it that, even if you discount anything else about the series, Artemis Fowl is still an abysmal movie.
Review: Artemis Fowl
With poorly shot action scenes, virtually zero character development, and no interest in indulging in its fantasy premise, Artemis Fowl is a total slog that will displease die-hard fans of the source material and newcomers alike.