Eoin Colfer’s acclaimed novel is transformed into a lifeless ninety minutes of people (and fairies) explaining things to the camera.
Those who attempt to overcome the temporal myopia caused by the information overload of the modern world can recall a time when the multiplexes were not solely the domain of superheroes (itself preceding the present moment when the cinema has been rendered immobile). Before the Avengers were assembling (and before Katniss volunteered as tribute) there was a period where every fantasy novel under the sun was optioned with the hope of becoming the next Harry Potter.
Who could forget the legion of failed franchise starters, adaptations of successful novels about children (normally boys) discovering a secret world? Most people, it seems, if they ever watched them in the first place, which the facts show not many did. Most making the mistake of warping the novel beyond recognition, alienating book fans without attracting non-readers, and laying the groundwork for sequels rather than telling a compelling story. (The exception being Percy Jackson, which, although despised by fans and author alike, was successful enough to merit a sequel).
While the teen fantasy bubble grew and shortly popped, Artemis Fowl languished in development hell. While Eoin Colfer’s series about a child genius/criminal mastermind discovering the underworld of magical creatures was successful, an adaptation remained in the air (likely because of the series’ antiheroic and frequently insufferable protagonist).
After over a decade, the film finally seemed to get off the ground, but was pushed back by its association with Harvey Weinstein, then release date delays, and finally, Coronavirus. Thus, Artemis Fowl has at last been unceremoniously dumped on Disney+, as another piece of content for busy parents to plop their children in front of in exchange for a brief ninety-four minutes of solitude.
Some films come out of protracted development cycles as visionary masterpieces; Mad Max Fury Road being a recent example. The vast majority arrive as watered-down snoozefests, where numerous studio hands have shed the film of any personality.
As a fan of the books, it gives me no pleasure to report that Artemis Fowl is no Fury Road. Directed by Kenneth Branagh with a script by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, it feels like the product of excessive studio meddling; stripped down so as to appeal to everyone that it ends up offering little appeal to anyone.
McPherson has combined the first two books, a wise choice, considering the untraditional plot of the first novel. Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw) lives with his wealthy father (Colin Farell, collecting a paycheck) and their bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anonzie). When Artemis Sr. goes missing and is accused of theft, Artemis Jr. discovers that a world of fairies exists, and strives to capture one (Holly Short, played by Lara McDonnell) in order to rescue his father.
The film opens at the story’s end, where a bevy of journalists surround “Fowl Manor” (a name the filmmakers do not seem to find funny). They arrest Josh Gad, who is apparently extradited to an MI6 black-site from where he can narrate the plot in relative ease.
Yes, Gad is playing a “gigantic dwarf” named Mulch Diggums, but this is one of those instances where applying wigs and adding a gravelly tone to his voice only makes the character less believable. Each time the film cuts back to Diggums in the interrogation room he’s centered and directly addressing the camera; it feels like we’re watching an Errol Morris documentary where Hagrid testifies to having witnessed war crimes. (These scenes are also shot in black and white because it looks cool, I guess.)
“Our story starts where all great stories begin,” he says, which is a cute way of placing the film within the context of fairy tales but makes less sense as something you would say to an intelligence agent in an interrogation chamber. It soon becomes clear that Diggum’s narration is for no reason other than out of fear the audience might not constantly understand what is happening at every single instance of the film.
But if there’s one thing that Artemis Fowl does well, it’s over-explain. The titular character is introduced in a montage where Gad tells MI6 how smart he is, over shots of Artemis excelling in school, followed by a screenwriting 101 scene where Artemis tells a psychiatrist how smart he is. Frequently, Diggums will introduce a character just before more characters run into the scene yelling the just-introduced character’s name, in case you didn’t catch it the first time.
(At several points Diggums, revealing his dwarf powers, yanks on his jaw and opens his mouth to massive size. It’s a neat special effect that unintentionally doubles as a scathing metaphor for Gad’s role in the film).
That Gad’s voiceover is the worst element of the film is no knock on Gad himself, who is entertaining enough when given something to do. Rather, it’s symptomatic of the film’s whole approach to storytelling. Every plot point must be said out loud, preferably several times. Magical characters will often say something about their world that they should know, they clearly only speak for our benefit.
Many scenes worth of character building are summarized in just a few lines — like we’re getting the cliff notes version of the story. Often the characters run around the house shouting exposition at each other while the camera follows after them; as if to compensate for the dramatic inertness of the scene.
At times it feels like Branagh has forgotten that cinema is a visual medium. Many of the film’s reveals are delivered through shots of Artemis reading a book and occasionally uttering something out loud.
I can’t help but compare it to Harry Potter. One of the most memorable scenes from the first movie is Hagrid barging in to tell Harry, “You’re a wizard,” followed by Harry’s baffled response (a what?).
In Artemis Fowl the reveal that fairies exist is delivered without batting an eye — as if the filmmakers shrugged and said, “You’ve seen the trailer, you know where the story is heading, let’s just get to the good stuff.” It would be acceptable if the film attempted to create a sense of wonder. Alas, besides a few wide shots introducing the fairy underworld, all we see of it are then the police headquarters and the prison system; a decision would’ve seemed unimaginative a few weeks ago, but now seems crass and misanthropic (or mis-fairy-opic).
And yes, the underworld’s equivalent of the FBI is called “LEPrecon,” a joke that fits right into Colfer’s text, but seems tonally at odds with Branagh’s filmmaking. Once a Shakespearian director, now a Disney journeyman (and occasional mustache wearer), he gives every scene a sense of earnestness that dulls the zaniness of Colfer’s words.
Speaking of words, the plot apparently hinges around a magical object everyone seeks called the “Aculus”. It’s a MacGuffin so vague and forgettable that the screenplay makes a point to have it’s every mention followed by a character saying something like, “it’s the most powerful weapon in the fairy world,” assuming (rightly) that every five minutes it the word was uttered it would leave the viewer’s mind entirely.
Luckily Branagh trots out Dame Judi Dench to give the word “Aculus” some oomph. As chief of LEPrecon Commander Root, Dench appears to have recorded all her scenes recovering from a nasty cold, as every line is delivered in a growl that would make Christian Bale jealous. It’s ridiculous, but it’s never not entertaining to watch the celebrated actress don prosthetic ears and grumble some nonsense words.
Unfortunately, the other characters are not blessed with being played by Dame Dench, although the actors try their best to imbue life into underwritten roles. This falls hardest on Holly, who should be the film’s co-lead, but is frequently sidelined — during one action scene she’s sidelined and spends the entire time stuck in a chandelier!
At least Artemis Fowl looks good. Early scenes showing gorgeous vistas seem to have been commissioned by the Irish tourism board (we have Beaches! Forests!). The production design is neat, and the set pieces are creative — a welcome relief from the explosion **** of many current blockbusters.
But it’s the parts in between the action that fall flat. At times you get the sense that the film was at one point much longer, but most of the dialogue scenes were cut and replaced with Gad’s narration (the teaser trailer promises many scenes that don’t feature in the final film, including a whole sequence in Vietnam).
All the character development and emotional nuance the story so desperately needs is substituted for a couple of perfunctory lines. The friendship between Holly and Artemis, what should be the emotional crux with the film, is reduced to a single exchange that’s so unsubtle it makes the “Martha” scene from Batman v. Superman look like high literature.
The result is a film that feels like it’s being constantly rewritten from scene to scene. The officers a LEPrecon make a big deal of sending Holly up to the surface. Five minutes later they all arrive with ease. In one scene, Dench’s character triumphantly steps outside (“Top of the morning to you,” she announces, in one of the film’s few deliberately funny jokes). Several shots later she is back inside.
An early action scene cleanly introduces a “time freeze” technology, which is later used to completely different effect. And at one point the film announces that Diggum’s vision has been switched to “X-Ray” and the camera begins to show us through Diggum’s eye, which appears to just be regular sight but with numbers all around it? The film reeks of laziness, of an unwillingness to actually delve into its own logic; finding it easier to pay lip service to ideas that have been established in other movies.
In theory, the idea of combining two books could work, but the result is one underwritten story with another grafted on to up the stakes. The film technically has a villain, but her presence is so minimal as to be instantly forgettable. Half-way through; her identity is revealed, but it should be obvious to anyone who’s read the books, and gibberish to anyone who hasn’t.
And when her motive is revealed, it should be genuinely compelling; if the film had committed to explaining the politics of fairy-human relations. Apparently, she’s played by Watchmen’s Hong Chau, but there’s no way to tell, as she’s always shrouded in darkness. Her voice is garbled and she only ever delivers lines to an incapacitated Colin Farrell who looks like he’s constantly waiting for the director to yell “Cut!”
Despite all these issues, I genuinely hope that the film is successful enough to inspire sequels. Artemis Fowl ends on a note that seems like the beginning of a much better film; one where all the explanation is out of the way and there’s no longer any excuse to cut to Josh Gad mid-way through every scene (although I’m sure they’ll find a way).
It’s just a shame that the film aggressively tries to reign in anything that could be exciting. It feels hastily assembled to meet studio expectations that so little personality can be found.
At one point, Butler says, “You weren’t supposed to see this yet”. He’s talking to Artemis, but he might as well be addressing the viewer.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia