It’s hard to pinpoint where the debacle called Artemis Fowl went wrong. The choices are endless: Judi Dench’s Commander Root, a fairy who growls “top of the morning!” as if it were a Bruce Willis catchphrase; the fairy world, shot, like much of the film, in terrible CGI; or Josh Gad, playing what can only be described as Jack Black impersonating Batman. You have to see it to believe it… but I wouldn’t recommend doing so.
The movie arrives 20 years after Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl became a best-selling novel, with none of the magic or mystery that made his work a hit. Despite Colfer’s approval, the Disney release has little in common tonally with the eight book series about a villainous prodigy doing battle with fairies. Instead, this Artemis Fowl seems to exist in another universe, one scrubbed of edge and personality.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the movie sets up Artemis as a character every boy wishes they could be: a boy smart enough to quote Einstein, rad enough to surf Ireland and lucky enough to have Colin Farrell as a father. An introductory scene shows him schooling his teacher in knowledge of antiques, which happens to be Fowl Sr.’s (Farrell) line of work. Or so he thinks. After paps goes missing, Artemis and bodyguard (Nonso Anozie) scour the basement for clues, where they discover that fairies and other creatures are living under the earth’s core. Right on cue, an evil fairy phones Fowl residence, demanding Artemis locate a gold thingamajig (the “Oculus”) in exchange for his father’s safe return.
One of the worst archetypes in cinema is the genius who doesn’t seem smart. Not only does Artemis come off as dopey, he’s cocky, boring and unlikable. Written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, the protagonist is often described as “an off the charts genius,” a younger Will Hunting. But he doesn’t do anything to prove it, or much of anything at all. There’s not a lot of depth here. The book grounds Artemis in the sorrow of having parents who are never around. This adaptation touches on his parents’ absence, but now the focus has shifted to kiddie entertainment.
In his quest to find the Oculus, Artemis kidnaps a fairy named Holly (Lara McDonnell), bringing an underworld buzzing with fairies and swarming with futuristic gizmos to his doorstep. Led by Commander Root (Dench), the Lower Elements Police Recon (LEPRecon) unleash a Normandy-scale attack on Fowl’s coastal estate, a battle that both slows the pace and speeds up the action. Although Branagh conjures a wild image or two (a troll tearing up a living room, Judi Dench in green spandex), the finale lacks stakes, and the direction fails to borrow ingredients from other, more successful fantasies.
In their matching black suits, shooting lasers at fairies, Artemis and his body guard look like a little league version of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black. The fairies recall those in Prep & Landing, while Gad’s Mulch Diggins, a dwarf, is dressed to resemble Hagrid from the Harry Potter series. All these fairies and humans and dwarfs and trolls run around Artermis’ estate breaking things, shooting things, yelling clunky lines of dialogue. But no one gets hurt. None of these creatures are villains, so the climax-what there is of one- ends in hugs instead of bloodshed.
Parents looking for something to occupy their young ones may find that lack of violence appealing. But Artemis Fowl book fans will be less forgiving. Everything that made Colfer’s writing stand out is gone. What we get instead is Dench playing action hero and Gad shitting out clumps of dirt while digging a hole with his mouth (don’t ask). “This just got awkward,” Mulch says a few minutes later. Just?
You can watch Artemis Fowl right now exclusively on Disney+.