“Artemis Fowl” was supposed to be Disney’s “Harry Potter,” the kick-off installment in a young-adult fantasy franchise that might have spawned sequels and merch and its own corner of the company’s theme-park kingdom. Instead, it arrives 20 years on, a very late addition to an already overcrowded genre, adding little but noise, garish CGI and more convoluted mythology about the supposedly real civilizations of magical folk — fairies and goblins and trolls — that live among us. Better films have tried and failed to launch hit series, which suggests that “Artemis Fowl” should have taken a lesson from such unwieldy one-offs as “The Golden Compass,” “Ender’s Game” and “The Last Airbender”: Don’t count your chickens before they’ve flopped.
First optioned (by Miramax, while Eoin Colfer’s novel was still in galleys) in 2000, “Artemis Fowl” was finally shot in 2018 (by Kenneth Branagh, clearly overwhelmed) and delayed multiple times before being dumped onto the Disney Plus streaming service (by a studio with bigger franchises to focus on). Somewhere along the film’s long development, those involved saw fit to ignore the very thing that makes Artemis Fowl “Artemis Fowl,” transforming the prepubescent scoundrel into a smug, smarter-than-thou little brat — a baby Bruce Wayne reared in what appears to be one of Ireland’s poshest estates.
Everybody knows (and by “everybody,” I mean the best-selling series’ many readers, most of whom have long since aged out of the demographic for this movie) that Artemis Fowl is a “12-year-old criminal mastermind.” But Disney has seen fit to turn the infamous young antihero into a precocious do-gooder, scrubbing the character of precisely the elements that made him so intriguing: Just think of the brilliantly villainous schemes you could pull off if you started planning before getting your first pimple!
But no. It’s as if the studio had given the makers of “Despicable Me” notes, saying, “We love it! But does he have to be despicable? What if Gru’s just a guy with a lair and a lot of cool toys?” Sure, this is Disney we’re talking about, and it has a family-friendly reputation to uphold, but who wants to see another retread of the “magic is real” genre with some spoiled twit as your main character?
The Artemis we meet in the movie doesn’t have much personality, defined primarily by his stoic expression and preternaturally blue eyes. Actor Ferdia Shaw is “Jaws” star Robert Shaw’s grandson, appearing here in black-and-white suits and reflective sunglasses. He could be the kid-size version of the Men in Black, guarding the human realm from rogue fairies (which is a thing, apparently, although the movie never adequately explains the “LEPrecon” rebellion that upsets their otherwise peaceful ranks). In the book, Artemis just wants their gold, but here, it’s not entirely clear what his angle is.
Feeling tortuously long at just 93 minutes, the movie plows through heaps of exposition, putting the hefty job of establishing Artemis’ character on the shoulders of a dwarf named Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad, who looks an awful lot like Hagrid, and acts an awful lot like Jack Black). An avid eater of dirt, Mulch is central to Artemis’ plan to locate the Aculos — a giant acorn-shaped MacGuffin with magical powers — and rescue his father (also named Artemis, played by Colin Farrell) from the movie’s faceless villain. Mulch clearly emerged from the experience a fan, over-hyping young Artemis’ brilliance to such a degree that he starts to sound like a hirsute Keyser Söze.
The way the dwarf spins it, young “Arty” — the last word anyone would use to describe this vulgar production, by the way — was shocked to discover that his dad might be responsible for some of the world’s most notorious heists. But that’s not the only revelation in store for Artemis, who also learns that the fairy tales his father told him as a kid, but later insisted were false, are true after all.
Did I lose you there? Imagine a parent going through the trouble to convince you that Santa Claus exists, only to pull the rug out moments later. “Artemis Fowl” does that a lot, establishing key information one moment, only to twist it in the very next scene — as when butler/bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) is described as the ultimate tough guy merely so that we might be surprised when he proves to be a big softie, quick to cry. Do young audiences find that amusing or merely manipulative?
Along the same lines, the movie concocts a set-piece in which LEPrecon operative Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) uses something called a “time-stop” to capture a giant troll mid-attack, just so the device can malfunction when used on Fowl Manor. If the time-stop doesn’t work on Artemis, why does the fairy army (led by a stiff but fabulously dressed Judi Dench) go to such lengths to keep it airborne during the big siege on Artemis’ estate? What function does this elaborate invention serve? Failing that, the fairies send in Mulch (dwarfs are good for digging) and that pesky troll, who does a thorough job of destroying all the lovely production design that went into creating Fowl Manor.
Once the dust has settled, Branagh gives us a gratuitous tracking shot in which the camera follows Artemis as he stumbles through the ruins of that amazing set (most of the fairy realm looks virtual, an extravagant waste of budget and imagination). Amid the swooping cameras and soaring music cues, however, the showdown is virtually impossible to follow. At one point, Artemis’ weapon flies out of his hand for no apparent reason, although it’s hard to get too concerned, knowing that fairies can heal all wounds, and the Aculos can fix whatever else goes wrong.
What a shame. Screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl have taken a not-very-good book and turned it into a downright awful movie. How could Branagh — whose projects remain so firmly grounded in character, no matter their scale — have lost sight of the fact that a movie named “Artemis Fowl” should have focused on making the character someone audiences wanted to be around? Then the idea of spending more time with him in future adventures might actually appeal. Instead, we get a movie with a loosely defined hero, an even vaguer villain and a whole lot of things flying at the screen, in service of one of those endings that suggests we’ve just watched the origin story for a character we’ll never hear from again.