‘Artemis Fowl’ is a regrettable fairy tale
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Disney quickly scrambled to cancel or postpone the theatrical releases of their highest profile titles. But with Kenneth Branagh’s “Artemis Fowl,” an adaptation of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s fantasy novels, the mouse house decided to dump it onto Disney+ two weeks after it was slated for release.
It’s a good decision, offering up some fresh content for kids just out of school, but it’s also wise because “Artemis Fowl” wouldn’t have been worth the wait for the big screen. It’s barely worth the time to stream.
The film introduces us to the fantastical world of Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), a bratty little rich kid whose father, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell), runs around the world dealing in high-end antiquities. When he mysteriously goes missing, accused of making off with a magical artifact, Artemis and his faithful servant Domovoi (Nonso Anozie), set about trying to save him.
The whole endeavor is a naked attempt to cash in on the young adult fantasy trend spearheaded by “Harry Potter.” There have been many attempts to snatch the Potter crown (and purse), but “Artemis Fowl” will not be the hot new kiddie fantasy franchise, based on this utterly charmless first entry.
Things get off to a rough start, as Josh Gad, playing a dwarf named Mulch, offers narration in a bizarrely affected growl. It’s an explanation of events via interrogation testimony, in an unnecessarily complicated flashback structure.
Through his father’s journals, Artemis discovers that fairy tales, and fairies, are in fact very real. He better believe it too, because those high-tech little buggers are about to come shooting out of a volcano and into his world, looking for a precious thingamajig (an “Oculus”? It holds spells? Who knows, and frankly, who cares, it might as well be called the McGuffin) that Artemis Sr. apparently stole.
Out spills fairy Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), looking to prove herself and clear her father’s name, who was also accused of stealing the doohickey at some point. A troll, a centaur and many more fairy soldiers follow, led by Judi Dench, who musters all her Oscar-winning dignity to utter lines like “top o’ the mornin’” while outfitted in futuristic green fairy armor.
While there are plenty of problems to unpack, the biggest one is Artemis himself. It’s not entirely the fault of young star Shaw, who feels way out of his depth (this is his very first role, though acting is in the family: His grandfather was Robert Shaw, Quint from “Jaws”). The blame should land squarely on the screenwriters, Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, who don’t know what to do with this complex little antihero.
In the first book, Artemis is introduced as a longtime criminal mastermind who instigates the events, but the film serves as an origin story for him to get there, so for the majority of the running time, he’s merely a snotty kid who finally eventually ends up in sharp suits and sunglasses, walking away from explosions in slo-mo. It’s an impossible tone for Shaw to master, and it’s difficult to root for our protagonist.
The fairies and trolls and humans and dwarves tumble around and around in Artemis’ estate, destroying things, dying, coming back to life, explosively farting, making friends, chirping hackneyed dialogue, wearing sunglasses, saying cringeworthy Irish phases and setting off on a quest … before the film comes to an abrupt halt, just skipping the entire third act and saving it for the expected sequel. Although surprising, it’s still a real blessing when those credits roll.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Josh Gad, Ferdia Shaw, Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor.
Available Friday on Disney+