Having been stuck in development hell for two decades, an adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl finally arrives. His eight novels published between 2001-2012 have legions of fans, but Miramax and then Disney struggled to find the right approach to the material. After all, Artemis is a 12-year-old criminal who steals things and kidnaps people, which is hardly the sort of role model Hollywood usually champions! Tragically for all book readers (and others aware of the anti-hero concept), Artemis Fowl is a lifeless dilution of Colfer’s creation that smoothes over the character’s motivations.
In the first book, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) kidnaps a fairy called Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and holds her for ransom so the Fairy People will pay up and replenish his family’s lost fortune. In this film, the central kidnapping is of Artemis’s own father, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell), by a hooded figure who wants a magical fairy trinket called the Aculos that he’s stolen and hidden. Artemis is thus made aware of his dad’s criminal background, together with the existence of fairies and goblins, by his family’s bodyguard Dom Butler (Nonso Anozie), and has three days to recover the Aculos to free his father. Holly Short is later captured by Artemis, but the circumstances are much less controversial for a kid’s film.
Written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl (Johnny English Reborn), Artemis Fowl has clearly been bled dry by a committee and has come to resemble yet another Harry Potter wannabe—which the novels were once accused of being too. But without the core idea that Artemis is a criminal mastermind (which he self-identifies as but never behaves like), here’s not much separating Artemis Fowl from the likes of other also-rans like the Percy Jackson movies.
Even accepting the changes that steered the lead away from being a nuanced anti-hero, Artemis Fowl doesn’t compensate with a rip-roaring adventure. Events barely leave the coastal Fowl Manor, beyond a few trips to an underground lair of fairies led by Commander Julius Root (Judi Dench) of the Lower Elements Police (LEP). For what it’s worth, Dench acquits herself well with a raspy Irish brogue, but this marks the second flop franchise she’s connected herself to after The Chronicles of Riddick (2004). I’m sure it was only a favour for director friend Kenneth Branagh they sealed between takes on Murder on the Orient Express (2017), or something more accessible for her grandkids to watch, but she sure can pick ’em. Following on from Cats (2019), we need an intervention.
Kenneth Branagh (Thor) deserves some of the blame, even if he was likely forced into sanitising the Artemis Fowl concept by Disney bosses. There’s little here that’s entertaining otherwise, with flatly written characters played by uncharismatic actors. Ferdia Shaw looks the part as Artemis (intelligent, arrogant) but he’s no fun to spend time with and struggles to take charge of the narrative. Artemis never exhibits genius-level thinking or dastardly plotting either, as a lot of stuff happen around him and things work themselves out.
The bigger names like Farrell and Dench aren’t around enough to compensate for the problems with Shaw, so a lot is carried on the shoulders of Disney-stalwart Josh Gad (Frozen II, Beauty and the Beast) as oversized dwarf Mulch Diggums. This Hagrid-like character bookends the film as the narrator of the story being interviewed, and he gives the most interesting performance. Mulch’s trick of elongating his mouth to burrow through the earth is one of few memorable visuals. It makes you realise there was a reason Harry Potter filled scenes with veteran British actors, as they distract audiences from the comparative flatness of the child stars—at least in the first two movies when the main trio was finding their feet.
Costing $125M to produce, hopes for Artemis Fowl to become a long-running saga with more books to adapt appear to be been short-lived. Disney removed Artemis Fowl from a planned theatrical release due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so now it’s become a Disney+ exclusive. That’s clearly where it belongs. It’s hard to imagine anyone being excited enough to see this in a cinema, as the wow-factor is low and the story confused and uninvolving.
Worse, it’s one of those films where character relationships are explained but never felt, so when big emotional beats happen towards the end (the death of a character, or a happy reunion) you’re utterly unmoved by what’s happening. And there’s such a lack of detail given to the fairy realm that it seems like someone hastily merged ancient Irish folklore with futuristic technology like time-freezing bubbles.
Of course, even if Artemis Fowl stuck closer Eoin Colfer’s intentions I’m not sure I’d have liked this. While I love the idea of a tween prodigy who discovers he’s from a long line of ne’er-do-wells, mixing that with fantasy trappings seems a peculiar choice. Book fans may disagree (and who am I to argue with them?), but conceptually it’s something I’d likely struggle with.
It’s like Colfer wanted to write an Irish Harry Potter, but knew the best inroad had been taken (orphan realises he’s the son of powerful wizards), so opted to combine generic folklore with an amoral schoolboy. It worked for young readers back in 2001, but maybe this idea was never going to fly as a film… and certainly not one premiering after the YA adaptation bubble burst.
USA | 2020 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Kenneth Branagh.
writers: Conor McPherson & Hamish McColl (based on the novels by Eoin Colfer).
starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Colin Farrell & Judi Dench.