From my understanding, the Artemis Fowl books are supposed to be pretty good. For my part, I never really got into them all that much – I read the first book (though, to be honest, I think I page-skimmed it), never picked up the sequel, and forgot basically everything that happens in the story fairly quickly. So I went into this new Disney film adaptation without any pre-conceived notions of what Artemis Fowl ought to be about.
And it was still a crushing disappointment.
Artemis Fowl, the movie, has a special place on the sadly long list of films that are somehow all plot and no plot at the same time. On the one hand, there’s oh so much going on: people are being kidnapped and ransomed left and right, shady deals are struck with the worst sorts of people, there’s an entire civilization of ancient Celtic fairies living in the center of the earth and they’ve lost a magical golden…vaguely acorn-shaped…thing…and some of them want to use it to…um, destroy the human race, I think….and there’s a whole subplot about who took the golden acorn thing in the first place and whether or not he was a traitor, but it’s hard to tell because this subplot is also only ever subtext despite being intrinsic to what I think was the main thrust of the story – and then on the other hand, this movie is basically just set up for a sequel which is never going to happen, because almost none of the story threads begun in Artemis Fowl actually end; they just peter out in the last twenty minutes of the movie, in a weirdly long, slow section of nothing happening.
This problem might never have occurred if the movie were about someone other than Artemis Fowl himself. Fowl, played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, is a singularly uninteresting character who apparently is a masterful strategist, though we never get to see him work out any of his strategies – those are all explained to us with the help of some helpful narration from Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) the giant, treasure-hunting Dwarf who claims to be the true hero of the story so many times that, by the end of the movie, I was convinced he should have been. Fowl, unfortunately, has all of the bark but no bite – for a boy who boasts loudly that he’s a criminal mastermind and struts around in suits and dark sunglasses like a miniature runway model, he doesn’t actually commit many crimes or do anything particularly cool. Everything that’s supposedly going on inside his enigmatic mind is firmly outside of the audience’s grasp, and the attitude he projects outwardly – that of a bratty, too-cool-for-school aristocrat – is unappealing and grating after a while.
The film might have benefited from being reworked around a supporting character in the plot, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell). Short, a talented, up and coming officer in the fairy militia, is better written than her above-ground counterpart, and she has a more interesting story to tell, as the daughter of the fairy responsible for the whole mess with the golden acorn thing. And, while this might not be a deal-breaker when it comes to choosing your protagonist, she is also cooler than Artemis Fowl – she has mind-control and healing powers (underutilized, of course), a snazzy green outfit and wings, and technologically-advanced weaponry. She’s also one of the very few highlights of the film, and one of the only truly memorable performances.
And I say that with all due respect to Josh Gad and Colin Farrell (Farrell, never one to miss out on a Disney Dad role, is playing Artemis Fowl Sr.). Judi Dench is here and there throughout the movie as the fairy commander Root, and she has some good line delivery, but more could have been done with her character’s rough-and-tough personality and extensive vocabulary of imaginative insults. Nonso Anozie plays Domovoi Butler, the Fowl family’s bodyguard and butler (get it? Because his name is Butler?) with complete apathy, making it unintentionally comical when his character is supposed to break down in tears during “dramatic” moments. Then again, he’s given such wretched dialogue to work with, especially during his first few scenes, that I can’t honestly blame him for being unable to force out any emotions.
There’s a villain, but this is the type of villain who only works through clueless cronies and thus has virtually no real impact on the plot. Artemis Fowl never even has a confrontation with this character – presumably, that was being saved for the hypothetical sequel – and only ever gets to fight a few fairy soldiers and a troll. The former are dispatched with a variety of magical weapons in a bizarrely edited sequence that seems to operate on the principle that action is more exhilarating if it’s just sped up, and the latter is pointless, but takes so long to defeat that you begin to wonder if it’s actually the final boss battle of the movie, and then you realize that it is and so it’s yet another disappointment to add to the list.
As I watched the film, I was looking for something, anything, to compliment: at last, I had settled upon the music. It was Celtic, if a bit stereotypically so, and I like Celtic music. But then I made the mistake of listening to it as it plays over the closing credits, and that’s when I realized that the reason I liked it is because it’s virtually copied from Howard Shore’s brilliant “The Breaking Of The Fellowship”. It’s not completely identical – it’s nowhere near as good – but the similarities are unmistakable and made me dislike it too.
And while I may not know the books very well, I do happen to be an avid reader of Celtic, and particularly Irish, mythology, and so of course I was offended by the film’s reworking of ancient pagan folklore. The basics are there: the Tuatha Dé Danann were driven underground by humans long ago, and have diminished into the stuff of fairytale. But the modernized twist, with the fey folk now carrying modern weapons and listening to modern music (I was hoping beyond hope that the fairy music would have been provided by real Celtic musical artists, but I was, wait for it, disappointed yet again) felt like shoddy worldbuilding. The only bit that was clever, in my humble opinion, was the unusual but illuminating reveal that David Bowie was apparently a member of the fairy race.
This film, simply put, is a disaster. There is little to no cohesion; characters feel half-baked; scenes are shot and edited poorly; it’s definitely not Kenneth Branagh’s finest achievement as a director, and even without any real knowledge of the books I’m positive it’s a let down for fans of the popular series. Though the film ends with a hook for a sequel, I doubt very much that this incarnation of Artemis Fowl will ever return to screens big or small (and on that point, I’m glad this film skipped theaters and headed straight to the Disney+ streaming service, so I didn’t have to risk catching coronavirus just for this). Instead, let me console you with the truth that, no matter what was planned to come next, it would likely have been just as disappointing as this turned out to be.
Movie Rating: 1.9/10