The Pitch: After years in development hell, Disney is unveiling its attempt at a new franchise with the adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s first Artemis Fowl novel. With a cast that includes Colin Farrell, Josh Gad, and Dame Judi Dench, and esteemed director Kenneth Branagh behind the camera, what could go wrong?
What Went Wrong: Well, just about everything. The one mercy of Artemis Fowl is that it’s short, clocking in at just 94 minutes including its end credits. Unfortunately, that gives Branagh and credited screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl plenty of time to create confusing character motivations, half-assed attempts at emotional gravitas, and stabs at humor that are best left unsaid or unseen. For those of us who haven’t read the Colfer books, Artemis Fowl fails to tell its most fascinating story of all, which would be its creation.
Watching the film implies that there’s a version of Artemis Fowl that was left on the cutting-room floor. The movie, which you can stream right now on Disney+, is framed by extensive — extremely extensive — narration from Gad, as large dwarf Mulch Diggums. He’s there to explain to the authorities who’ve arrested him how it is that a 12-year old boy was able to cause all sorts of havoc with fairies, dwarves, and other magical creatures from the confines of his family manor over the course of just three days. Mulch’s explanations, as overly detailed as they are, rarely clarify anything aside from the true limits of Josh Gad’s charms.
Who Is Artemis Fowl? The narration also winds up ensuring that Artemis Fowl, the title character of the movie, ends up feeling like a supporting player. Portrayed by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, Artemis is ostensibly a criminal mastermind, but he really just seems like an Irish version of Poochie from The Simpsons: He surfs! He rides a really cool skateboard! He wears slick sunglasses, and when he’s not on screen, characters are wondering what the heck he’s up to! Shaw doesn’t cut a striking figure on screen, but it’s hard to blame the young actor — the material (either because of how haphazard the film is, or because the script diluted whatever charms Artemis may have had on the page) is incredibly weak.
It doesn’t help that Artemis, like many of the characters, rarely seems to talk on screen. One of the easiest ways to spot a film in trouble is to look for the constant use of dialogue looping — dialogue that was recorded after production — and consider how many times the characters talk without ever actually seeing them talk. There are too many examples here: Artemis, his bodyguard Dom (Nonso Anozie), Dom’s daughter Juliet, and others walk and talk their way through the Fowl Manor, but we rarely get the pleasure of seeing these characters speaking.
We’re meant to believe that Artemis is incredibly shrewd — he’s given just three days to rescue his father (Farrell, who was hopefully paid well for his five minutes of screen time) by procuring a magical MacGuffin. But Branagh and company never make a convincing case that Artemis is smart, as much as he is smug and self-satisfied.
A Bottle Episode: It would be enough of a problem if the lead character was mildly annoying. Another truly baffling issue in Artemis Fowl is its limited scope. When the film begins, Artemis presumes that his father’s stories of fairies and elves are just those; soon enough, he realizes that his father catalogued these magical creatures after having encountered them. And yet, with the exception of an early scene at school meant to establish Artemis’ cred as a super-cool genius, the boy does not leave his house. This is no exaggeration — Artemis Fowl is the cinematic equivalent of a TV show’s bottle episode in which the main characters stay in one setting for its entirety.
The limited scope of Artemis Fowl doesn’t make it any more charming. when we do travel to the center of the Earth where all the magical creatures live, the fantasy design is often grim, grimy, and unwelcome. Gad and Dench — as Mulch the dwarf and a fairy commander, respectively — are delivering what may be two of the worst performances of their careers. In one scene, Mulch notes that they both sound like “hippos with throat infections”, which may seem funny until you realize that it’s a very apt comparison coming from the narrator of this movie. Dench, coming off the horrors of Cats, looks extremely ill at ease in her fairy garb and not much more comfortable making the phrase “Top o’ the mornin’” sound tough. (One imagines that her kiss-off line, “Get the four-leaf clover out of here”, will not wind up in a career-achievement montage.)
Dumping Ground: Artemis Fowl has been in development hell for years, having first been a Miramax Films property in 2001. Once Disney committed to making the film, it shifted the release date around a few times, most recently intending to release it at the end of May. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic arrived and made it so releasing anything in theaters at the end of May would have been extreme folly. But here’s the thing: Had Disney released this film in theaters ever, it’s safe to presume that this would have wound up one of their biggest financial misfires. There’s no real good to come out of the pandemic, but Artemis Fowl would have surely represented a jaw-dropping loss for the studio.
The Verdict: Three months into the pandemic, Artemis Fowl marks the third major studio release to skip theaters and head straight for your TV. The good news for any Disney+ subscribers is simple: Unlike the April and May releases of Trolls World Tour and Scoob!, you don’t have to pay a single dime for Artemis Fowl. That may be the best news of this entire film. You’ll only lose 90 minutes of your life to this misbegotten mess.
Where’s It Playing? Disney Plus. It’s on Disney Plus.