‘Artemis Fowl’, Artless and Foul

It needed help from the faeries

The fairies in Artemis Fowl can freeze human time, flitting about while they mop up messy situations before erasing people’s memories of the magical world.

If only they’d swept in to fix this movie.

ARTEMIS FOWL ★★(2/5 stars)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl
Starring: Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Colin Farrell, Nonso Anozie, Ferdia Shaw
Running time: 95 min


Film adaptations must satisfy book devotees while also introducing a franchise to viewers who might become new fans. It’s hard to do. For every Harry Potter win, there are far more failures. (J’accuse, Percy Jackson.)

Eoin Colfer’s best-selling boy-genius tale has spent two decades in its journey to the screen. Yet the result, which began streaming June 12 on Disney Plus, is simultaneously bloated with story and impenetrable. It alternates between set pieces and manufactured heartstring-tug moments, with little of the sustained character development and world-building that made the book series such a success.

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw, grandson of Robert “Quint” Shaw) is a brilliant 12-year-old. In the books, he’s a scrawny anti-hero, the descendant of a multi-generational Irish crime dynasty. Here, he surfs and runs mental circles around his therapist before a father-son library montage to establish some familial knowledge about fairies, trolls and other magical beings. Fowl pére is Colin Farrell, looking appropriately pensive as he pops into his busy-rich-dad helicopter and lifts off, mercifully sparing himself the bulk of the film.

The crux of the plot is Artemis senior’s kidnapping. Young Artemis must use his wits to find the power-granting Aculos to trade for his father’s freedom. He teams with young fairy cop Holly Short (Lara McDonnell, ready to snatch Saiorse Ronan’s crown for doe-eyed stares), also with a challenging father story.

Let’s not forget about Josh Gad as giant dwarf thief Mulch Diggums. Hard to do, of course, since Gad frequently stares right into the camera as part of an interrogation framing device that also shovels in some exposition. Gad (the voice of Olaf in both Frozens) gets a steady stream of quips to deploy–“Most human beings are afraid of gluten. How do you think they’d handle goblins?”–which sometimes amuse, often grate.

Judi Dench gamely does her best as tough Commander Root, squintily barking orders and stalking around in her emerald-green uniform and pointy ears. I could have lived my whole life without seeing her stonily hiss “Top of the morning” as she disembarks her aircraft, though.

Director Kenneth Branagh does know how to stage an action scene. There are some fun bits at a human wedding gone wrong, as well as inviting looks at the fairy world.

Other choices feel confusing at best. I don’t mind the loss of Foaly’s tinfoil hat, but Disney’s version of the tech-genius centaur feels like half of Milli Vanilli just went galloping through the command center. A big part of Holly’s backstory is that she’s the first female captain of her kind, which Dench’s casting negates. Branagh hand-picked black actor Nonso Anozie to play Artemis’ caretaker and bodyguard, who’s Eurasian in the book, but with so little to do, the character reinforces stereotypes instead of inverting them.

The movie’s end leaves a major plot thread unresolved, which implies that Disney’s hoping this is the start of another franchise. Let’s get those memories wiped instead.

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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