A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2020

ARTEMIS FOWL j

2020, PG, 93 mins.

Colin Farrell as Artemis Fowl I  /  Ferdia Shaw as Artemis Fowl II  /  Lara McDonnell as Captain Holly Short  /  Judi Dench as Commander Root  /  Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums  /  Nonso Anozie as Butler  /  Tamara Smart as Juliet Butler  /  Miranda Raison as Angeline Fowl  /  

Directed by Kenneth Branagh  /  Written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, based on the novel by Eoin Colfer

I knew that I was in serious trouble very early on in my streaming viewing of the new Disney produced sci-fi adventure film ARTEMIS FOWL. 

Within the first few minutes of this adaptation of the young adult novel series by Eoin Colfer the titular character's name is mentioned/referenced, like, a dozen times.  We get it.  Seriously.  This film is called ARTEMIS FOWL, it's about a young criminal mastermind named Artemis Fowl, and is the single most Artemis Fowled film in the history of Artemis Fowl. 

Obvious sarcasm aside, ARTEMIS - ahem! - FOWL is one of the most confusingly and awkwardly rushed would-be franchise starters that I've seen recently.  It's the kind of film that feels like it's trying to win a frenetic race to its end credit finish line to see how quickly it can dispense two novels worth of dense plot into one barely over ninety minute running time.  Paradoxically, ARTEMIS FOWL is unhealthily crammed with so many ideas, themes, characters, locations, and set pieces while simultaneously coming off as empty minded and hollow.  This is as good looking of a bland movie as there has been this year, and one that's also a desperately obvious HARRY POTTER clone inexplicably cross morphed with MEN IN BLACK.  

Even more bewildering is that ARTEMIS FOWL was intended to be launched as a cinematic universe way, way back in 2001, and then floundered in development hell until finally be produced and set for initial release last year, during which time Disney probably smelled a qualitative and box office dude and delayed it to this summer...which further led to it being unceremoniously dumped to their Disney+ streaming service because of our current pandemic.  Regardless, ARTEMIS FOWL is an equal opportunity let down machine: it'll annoy the source material's fans while utterly confusing lay filmgoers. 

The premise here couldn't be anymore simple, really: A 12-year-old Irish genius/prodigy tries to save his kidnapped father while discovering an underground fantasy land of fairies, dwarves, trolls and other mystical creatures.  Seems cool enough.  But the exposition dumping that occurs here within the film's opening few minutes is overwhelming to the point of making audience members feel like they should be taking notes to make sense of everything.  That, and there appears to be a Disney-fied softening of the edges of the lead character.  In the books - from what I've researched - the young Artemis Fowl is presented as an anti-hero criminal mastermind, but here he's more of a reluctant protagonist.  He's played in the film by Ferdia Shaw (grandson to the legendary Robert Shaw), and as the story opens we learn - via an oddly constructed series of flashbacks, flash-forwards and voiceover narration - that he's one of the smartest kids on the planet, raised by his father Artemis Sr. (the criminally misused Colin Farrell), who's a rich antiques dealer (or...is he?).   

 

 

Well, dear old papa Artemis finds himself kidnapped by the vile Opal (Hong Chau), who's a twisted pixie that visually looks like a hooded figure with green glow emanating from the face (it's as pedestrian and lackluster of a villain design as I've seen).  Anyhoo', Opal is wanting the Aculos (there's always a magical MacGuffin thingy that the villain wants in these films), which is also wanted by Commander Root (not to be confused with Groot, played by Judi Dench), an old battle hardened fairy that's so battle hardened that she sports a raspy voice that gives Christian Bale's Batman a run for his money.  She leads a magical kingdom hidden in the center of the Earth, and sends in a young fairy named Holly (Lara McDonnell) to help locate the device.  Little do they know that Artemis Jr. and his faithful butler...named Butler (Nonzo Anozie)...are trying to head off Groot's...I mean Root's...team, and even manages to fairy-nap Holly in the process.  Root then dispatches an army of fairies on Fowl Manor, leaving Artemis and his allies going on the defensive while trying to get Artemis Sr. back safe and sound.   

Let's get this out of the way right now:  As alluded to earlier, the world building in ARTEMIS FOWL is pathetically lousy.  We have a very poorly defined young hero without much in the way of personality or charm, not to mention that the main baddie here is even worse off as a well thought out antagonist and scary presence.  Trying to stuff the first two ARTEMIS FOWL novels into one inexcusably short film does it no favors whatsoever either, and right from the get-go we get one character trying to explain to us - literally by looking at us and into the camera - who Artemis Fowl is, where he came from, the magical world hidden from the normal world, and so on and so on.  This is all done via a lazy and poorly executed framing device with another character, the very fantasy sounding named Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad, looking like he's trying to finish first in a Hagrid cosplay contest), a dwarf with a growth issue (he's tall) that's arrested and detained by British Intelligence.  While interrogated, Mulch dishes on the whole Fowl universe with a voice that, like Dench's fairy warrior, is all monosyllabic, gravel mouthed nonsense.  And yes, it becomes a grating endurance test to sit through and listen to within the film's opening ten minutes.  Mulch has one defining characteristic: he can open his mouth up unfathomably large to eat or dig through anything, leading to some nightmarishly awful CG sequences. 

Back to the world building.  If you've never read an ARTEMIS FOWL book then you will be, no doubt, cast away hopelessly adrift by this film adaptation and left mightily struggling to piece everything together into some semblance of a meaningful whole.  When I wasn't confused by the story and myriad of characters and subplots, it became abundantly clear that there's very little separating this HARRY POTTER clone from the countless others over the years, ranging from the mediocre PERCY JACKSON to ERAGON to THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, to name a few.  I've been hard on the HARRY POTTER films over the years, but I will concede that that franchise felt grand and ambitious minded with its creative aspirations.  ARTEMIS FOWL is simply plagued with sloppy copycat syndrome.  The already bogged down and confounding plot builds towards a climax and ending that tries to conclude with a cliff-hanger, I guess, and lead to more adventures to come.  The sequel teasing/baiting of this lackluster introductory installment is pretty eye rolling.  Like so many other failed fantasy/sci-fi films these days, ARTEMIS FOWL can't be bothered to make a good first film with a definitive beginning, middle and end because it just spins its wheels trying to set up future follow-up entries. 

I feel bad for young Shaw.  Headlining tentpole franchises like this can't be easy for a lad.  I normally don't feel comfortable coming down on child actors, but he's not particularly inspired as young Artemis here, nor does he have much in the way of spunk to make this character a figure of rousing, rooting interest.  I don't think that's his fault, though.  I think the dullness of the Fowl character and the ill defined world that surrounds him is the fault of screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, not to mention that this film was inexplicably directed without much vision and cohesion by the great Kenneth Branagh.  Looking at the final product, the British filmmaker's usually assured fingerprints are no where to be found here, leaving a picture that feels like a journeyman, work-for-hire gig that could have been helmed by anyone looking for a quick pay check.  Branagh, to be fair, has successfully dabbled into glossy, big budget fantasy directorial waters recently, helming both CINDERELLA (one of the few tolerable live action remakes of a Disney animated classic) and THOR (one of the most underrated of all the MCU films), and he thankfully manages to make ARTEMIS FOWL look good on a level of production/costume design and art direction.  He also envisions a few nifty action sequences, like two featuring a time warping weapon being used by the heroes on unsuspecting enemies.   

Still, this is clearly the worst film that Oscar winner has ever had his good name associated with while behind the director's chair.  ARTEMIS FOWL is so emotionally lacking as far as fantasies go.  It's biggest sin is that it didn't make me careWhere's the sense of endless awe and wonder here?  By the time the film mercifully ends I never felt fully transported to and immersed in a thrilling new movie world.  ARTEMIS FOWL has some decent eye candy and striking imagery, but no discernible magic on display.  And when your franchise kick-off point is as muddled, sloppy, and borderline incoherent as this...well...why would I feel inclined to want to spend time in this world again with a sequel?  It's a damning red flag when Disney sent this $130 million budgeted fantasy direct to streaming instead of testing future box office waters with it.  Even Harry Potter himself couldn't have waved his wand and healed this doomed film.  ARTEMIS FOWL is most foul, indeed. 

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