Artemis Fowl is a poorly structured misfire that represents the nadir of Kenneth Branagh’s career and of Disney’s modern output.
I have never read the Artemis Fowl novels, though I have generally gleaned that they are the “cool kid” version of Harry Potter. I understand that they take Harry Potter’s stock “hero of destiny” narrative and twist it with a villainous protagonist and an injection of Men in Black-style science fiction to the standard fantasy tropes. Having now seen only this film version, I find myself utterly lost to the novels’ appeal.
Perhaps, this film serves as an illustration of the perils of adaptation. Apparently at a loss for how to depict an epic fantasy world with all sorts of rules and magical species, it appears screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl took the laziest option: endless narration. A shocking amount of the film’s first half is devoted to endless seaming narration by Josh Gad (Frozen’s Olaf). I cannot say Josh Gad is good in this movie – he is clad in a bargain basement version of Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid costume and has locked himself into an accent divorced from the way any human has ever spoken the English language – but at the very least he seems awake and aware.
The film is like a constant series of starts and stops. The movie was sold as an epic globetrotting adventure, yet the vast majority of it actually takes place in and around one mansion. For a movie that has so many characters and species and designs and twists, nothing resonates. Plot threads are constantly dangled and dropped. Technology is introduced that allows one character to freeze her surroundings to defeat villains only to see the power foiled in the film’s next action sequence. The film’s antagonist is only seen under cloak and is not even revealed in this movie. The movie never feels like more than part one of a story, and not a story I want to see continued. The relentless need to build new franchises helps ruin the value of a self-contained story as badly here as I can remember in recent cinema.
I do not feel the need to beat up on a child actor, but suffice to say lead Ferdia Shaw (grandson of Jaws and From Russia with Love scene stealer Robert Shaw) does not have the charisma necessary to make his part work. The titular Artemis Fowl is supposed to be a genius intellect – something of a preteen Professor Moriarty – but comes off as petulant and prickly. The rest of the cast is uniformly weak. The great Judi Dench (Skyfall, Notes on a Scandal) seems actively bored by her role as the commander of (I wish I was making this up) LEPrecon, a squad of elite fairy cops. Colin Farrell is here as our protagonist’s dad – he maintains his title as the best actor with the worst taste in paycheck roles.
And I have left the worst offender for last: Kenneth Branagh. Branagh (Thor, Hamlet) is a masterful Shakespearean performer and director, but merely an adequate populist director. Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit were reasonably successful IP origin stories. Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express were less effective but still no worse than competent. I do not know if Branagh has lost interest in these sorts of projects, or if he was simply felled by the sloppiness of this particular film. In Thor, for example, he managed to find grand Shakespearean tragedy in the brotherly rivalry between Thor and Loki. Here, there is not one plot thread that seems to have captured his focus. If the director does not seem interested in Artemis Fowl (who, amusingly, is almost always referred to by entire name) then why should I care?
It is perhaps unsurprising that this movie has been in development for nearly two decades: the story simply does not work well on screen. Of all the countless movies on Disney’s calendar, only Artemis Fowl was sacrificed to Disney+ as a result of COVID. Even The New Mutants, which has seen no less than five scheduled release dates and constant rumors of production hardships, is still going to see theaters. Turns out Disney was spoiling the ending all along: Artemis Fowl is the worst movie the studio has made this millennium.
Artemis Fowl is available to watch on Disney+ everywhere.
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