Artemis Fowl (United States, 2020)June 11, 2020
What is it about fantasy novels that makes them so difficult
to translate effectively to the silver screen? It’s not impossible – J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings
adaptations are proof that it can be done. More often than not, however, the result
is as limp and truncated as Kenneth Branagh’s Artemis Fowl – a few
standout moments set adrift in a sea of underdeveloped characters, incomplete
backstory elements, and abbreviated world building. Although the problem lies
primarily in the difficulties associated with condensing an epic tale into a
short-ish movie, the lack of elegance with which that is accomplished makes Artemis
Fowl a failure for anyone hoping for the next great fantasy film.
The treatment accorded to Artemis Fowl (the movie condenses
elements from the first two volumes of an eight-novel cycle into a single film)
recalls a Disney misfire from more than three decades ago. Although The Black Cauldron was animated, it suffered from many of the same problems evident
in Artemis Fowl: an oversimplification of the backstory, a rushed
narrative with poorly realized characters, and a overall lack of faithfulness
to the source material. The Black Cauldron worked better because it at
least had a clean ending. Artemis Fowl suffers by trying to both provide
a credible stopping point (in case there are no additional films) and offering
a lead-in to additional adventures (in case there are additional films).
In the books, 12-year old Artemis (played by Ferdia Shaw,
the grandson of Robert Shaw) is presented as an anti-hero (although, over the
course of the saga, his villainous attributes fade to be replaced by heroic
ones). Here, he’s more of a misunderstood boy-genius whose role as the protagonist
is never in question. All of his edges have been smoothed out. The story
focuses on Artemis’ efforts to locate and rescue his father, Artemis Fowl Sr.
(Colin Farrell), an infamous art thief who has been kidnapped by the twisted
evil fairy Opal Koboi. Her ransom for releasing him is that Artemis must locate
and obtain a powerful McGuffin. He is joined in his efforts by Lower Elements
Police (LEP) fairy police officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), giant dwarf
Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), and strongman Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie).
Artemis Fowl diverges considerably from the two books
that form its basis, Artemis Fowl and Artemis Fowl and the Arctic
Incident. Although author Eoin Colfer reportedly “approved” the changes,
they push the film into an alternate universe from the one occupied by the novels.
Even with the pruning of subplots and condensation of the narrative, 100
minutes is too short to tell the story effectively. None of the characters are
well-developed, including Artemis. The boy’s relationship with Holly Short evolves
with whiplash-inducing rapidity – one moment, they’re enemies (actually, she’s
his prisoner), the next they’re friends. The film’s frenetic pace might work
for ADD viewers and preteens but there’s no time for world-building or anything
more than the most basic exposition. As a result, Artemis Fowl feels
rushed to the point of being exhausting and strangely confusing despite the relatively
Kenneth Branagh was undoubtedly selected to direct the film
based on his success with two earlier Disney properties: the live-action Cinderella
and Marvel’s Thor. Perhaps because Branagh had no input into the
screenplay (which was completed before he came on board), the movie lacks the complex
psychological qualities he normally brings to his films. Visually, Artemis
Fowl is impressive. However, although the fairy world of Haven is
beautifully rendered, it appears all-too-briefly. The film’s most impressive
sequence, a throwdown with a seemingly invincible troll, is a standout by any
definition, but it represents only about five minutes of screen time and there’s
nothing else that comes close – not even the muted climax.
As is often the case, Branagh’s presence at the top results
in some impressive names in the cast. The young leads are newcomers – this is
Ferdia Shaw’s first movie (and it shows – his performance is occasionally wooden)
and Lara McDonnell’s third (she’s better, evidencing an indomitable pluckiness)
– but the rest of the cast is populated with veterans. Josh Gad, another Disney
regular, has the most openly comedic role of the film as Mulch Diggums. Colin
Farrell is called on for limited duty as Artemis’ mostly-absent father. Nonso
Anozie, who has a history with Branagh, plays Artemis’ protector and advisor.
Finally, Judi Dench adds a dose of class as Holly’s no-nonsense boss.
It has taken Artemis Fowl nearly 20 years to traverse
the route from page to screen and one senses that neither fans nor newcomers
will be especially pleased with the end result. Recognizing that the film faced
rough seas, Disney postponed the movie’s originally planned August 2019 release
to May 2020 then, when the coronavirus made that impossible, the studio elected
to shift the film to its Disney+ platform. Although partially a face-saving
gesture (Artemis Fowl would likely have had a similar box office
reception to Disney’s underwhelming 2018 release, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), it at least allows the film to find a large audience in a
The bottom line seems to be that, while Disney has shown an aptitude for making many different kinds of movies, fantasy epics aren’t among them. This is one genre the Magic Kingdom should perhaps avoid, leaving such properties to studios that have shown better success (such as Warner Brothers). Artemis Fowl could have been the beginning of a movie franchise but, based on the first installment, it’s more likely a one-and-done outing.
Artemis Fowl (United States, 2020)
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Collin Farrell, Nonso Anozie, Tamara Smart
Screenplay: Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, based on the novel by Eoin Colfer
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Music: Patrick Doyle
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
- (There are no more better movies of Ferdia Shaw)
- (There are no more worst movies of Ferdia Shaw)
- (There are no more better movies of Lara McDonnell)
- (There are no more worst movies of Lara McDonnell)