Adapting a beloved series of children’s books to the big screen is a tricky business. A delicate balance must be struck between ensuring avid fans of the source material are satisfied, while simultaneously making the end product appealing to newcomers to the series (this reviewer included). In this sense, Artemis Fowl fails on all fronts.
Disney has a long history of unsuccessful live-action films in its backlog, and this one may find itself at the bottom of the pile. Having languished in development hell since shortly after the release of the first book in 2001, this adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s fantasy series feels as though it has arrived far too late; long after the train of young adult and children’s book-to-film adaptations, spearheaded by Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, have left the station. The fact the film has been dumped, almost unceremoniously, onto Disney+ in the midst of a global pandemic doesn’t help matters either.
The immediate issue is that Artemis Fowl tries to cram far too much into its meagre 95-minute runtime, with the plot being a strange amalgamation of the first two books. This is not for a lack of content. In fact, it is evident from the frankly abysmal quality of the editing, that a lot has been left on the cutting room floor. At least that is the only logical explanation for the lack of continuity and the way characters appear in scenes seemingly out of nowhere.
Likewise, there is a severe lack of exposition. It is rare to have to complain about this, as oftentimes there is far too much, but here there is almost none; making what is already a tangled knot of convoluted plot points and character motivations all the more nonsensical. It roughly revolves around the eponymous Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) discovering the existence of fairies after his father (Colin Farrell) is kidnapped. He then needs to recover a McGuffin that the antagonist desires, but said McGuffin has actually already been stolen. Thankfully, Fowl knows exactly how to recover it, with every coincidental occurrence that drives the plot being part of his overarching plan, because he’s very smart. As noted, the plot is highly nonsensical, being difficult to follow even for an adult; so heaven help any children trying to understand.
In the process of adapting Colfer’s novel, several of the characters have become radical departures from their original portrayal in the books. There was a lot of online criticism by fans of the original novel in the wake of the teaser trailer’s release, and from the looks of things, it is rightly deserved. Most notable perhaps is the protagonist himself. Artemis is supposedly a cold, calculating, self-professed criminal mastermind, but his more villainous qualities have been toned down, seemingly in an attempt to make him more appealing.
Where the novels serve as something of a redemption story for the character, here he mainly comes across a smug, know-it-all that is thoroughly unlikable. This is not aided by Shaw’s deadpan, emotionless delivery that makes every line feel as though it is being read verbatim from a cue-card held off-screen. It is neither fun nor fair to outright criticise a young actor like Shaw, rather fault lies with director Kenneth Branagh, who seems to have offered next to no actual direction to the young actor.
This extends to almost every other character too, including Dame Judi Dench‘s Commander Root who, between her terrible Irish accent and stereotypical lines that any Irish person would likely find insulting, appears to put as little effort in as humanly possible. The exception is Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums, who gives his all by chewing the scenery whenever he appears onscreen, despite looking like an off-brand Hagrid and delivering his lines in a voice so gravelly Batman would find it too much.
On top of everything else, Artemis Fowl is brimming with cheap CGI and poor choices in the cinematography department which mean that action scenes contain far too much shakycam to be coherent. Worst of all, it is just plain boring. This is a film with the potential to delve into the rich heritage of Irish mythology, yet somehow manages to drain that concept of any actual fun.
The only thing that the film actually does well is to tarnish the legacy of a beloved series of children’s books by an acclaimed author, alienating every facet of its audience in the process. To paraphrase one of Dame Judi’s especially egregious lines, Artemis Fowl can: “get the four-leaf clover out of here.”
Available to stream on Disney+ now