REVIEW: Artemis Fowl (2020)
Artemis Fowl is the oft-forgotten brother to Harry Potter and Alex Rider (and don’t forget about Percy Jackson! – ed.). In the mid 2000s, there was a massive Young Adult Fiction boom of chosen ones. The most famous of which is of course Harry Potter, one of the most successful book and film franchises of all time, whose legacy remains unrivalled despite his creator’s best efforts. Alex Rider was a successful book series, but a critical flop and box office bomb with its Stormbreaker film adaptation back in 2006. Artemis Fowl, meanwhile, has struggled to achieve mainstream success.
Despite eight sequels since the first book arrived on our shelves in 2001, no film adaptation of Artemis Fowl has managed to get off the ground. The series’ author, Eoin Colfer, has been trying to get an adaptation made since before Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. The adaptation was in development hell for 13 years until it was finally picked up in 2016. Multiple producers, directors and stars have been attached in that time (even Saoirse Ronan was linked once upon a time), but here we are, FOUR entire years after its announcement, with Artemis Fowl stumbling into the world as a straight-to-Disney+ exclusive. I worry development hell is where this film should’ve remained.
With his fingers in all sorts of criminal pies, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) finds himself in hot water as his guise as an antique dealer begins to crumble around him. When he goes missing, his son, Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) and his butler, Dom (Nonso Anozie), must investigate his disappearance; an investigation which uncovers the existence of a magic underworld of fairies, dwarves, goblins, and trolls. Down below, LEPRecon police officers, Commander Root (Judi Dench) and Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), are drawn into Artemis’ mess and must ensure their world remains a secret or risk their world’s survival.
The original Artemis Fowl series is near and dear to my heart. Not many people I knew read Artemis Fowl, so it felt like my little secret. A magical world with amazing characters, creative world design, and exciting adventures around our world and the underworld for me to escape to every few years with every new release. A film adaptation has been on my wish list for years, but this long-awaited adaptation left me frustrated at what could’ve been, as it is a crushingly unfaithful adaptation of its source material.
It’s hard to criticise a young actor making his acting debut, but youngster Ferdia Shaw feels very out of his depth as the face of an aspiring new franchise. His line delivery is too rehearsed and any emotion he has to deliver isn’t translated by his face. Similar criticisms were levelled at a young Daniel Radcliffe way back when, however, so we will have to see how Mr. Shaw’s career progresses from here. Nonso Anozie, a far more experienced actor who has had roles in Game of Thrones and The Grey, fairs equally as poorly with wooden line delivery and failing to imbue his character with any of the intrigue present in the books. Lara McDonnell tries her best as the plucky young police officer Holly Short, but the script lets her down and gives her character little to nothing to work with; as such, McDonnell is left to simply tick off various fantasy character tropes (a battle to prove herself against her superior is her only real dramatic arc in the story). Divisive as he may be, Josh Gad appears to be having the most fun in the film and is quite a good Mulch, despite his needlessly confusing adaptation from book to screen. Mulch, a dwarf, is, for some reason, not a dwarf in the film and becomes a failed attempt at a running joke throughout. I wish I understood this decision.
The most egregious problem that arises very quickly into Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation is what appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters. Artemis himself is a boy genius, spending his time locked away in his own computer den making deals with the underworld, and someone who chooses not to attend school anymore as it is a waste of his superior intellect (Artemis is meant to be a bit of a knob). In the film, we’re introduced to Artemis while he goes for a morning surf before school.
Artemis’ Butler is a veteran bodyguard akin to Agent 47 from Hitman who swears an oath to protect his identity and as such, no one knows his name and he is forbidden from revealing his name until he is at death’s door. What’s that? The film abandons this? His name is Dom immediately and you, in fact, shouldn’t call him Butler? Much of what makes Butler’s character so good in the books is his mysterious past that is gradually revealed in dribs and drabs. This is forgotten about entirely in the film and, what’s worse, he isn’t even a good bodyguard.
These baffling decisions continue to plague Artemis Fowl as, aside from failing to adapt the books successfully, it doesn’t even work on its own merits as a standalone film. The film is framed by Josh Gad’s Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf under arrest for his role in the shenanigans that unfold over the course of the film. Mulch is being interviewed by a shadowy figure and recalls what happened at Fowl Manor, but the script constantly flip-flops between being an interrogation and talking directly to the audience. In our first visit to the underworld, Mulch narrates “welcome, ladies and gentlemen…to Haven City.” Who, exactly, is Mulch talking to? Artemis Fowl cuts to the interview periodically (curiously shot in black and white) to remind us that he is being interviewed, but Mulch consistently talks directly to us, which renders the framing device needlessly confusing.
Script issues remain throughout where scenarios unfold in one direction, and the characters react as if something entirely differently happened. In Holly Short’s first mission on-screen, she makes numerous mistakes, almost revealing the existence of magic to humans, forcing Commander Root to save the day. Root then congratulates Holly on a job well done. It left me entirely baffled as to which part of that job was indeed well done.
Speaking of Commander Root, Judi Dench is in the film.
There is some good news, however; I didn’t dislike every aspect of Artemis Fowl. The main sequence of the film, in which Fowl Manor is placed in a Time Freeze, becomes rather entertaining, as this was the sequence that embraced some of the wackier elements of the book. Mulch, for instance, is an expert tunneller who unhinges his jaw, opens an arse-flap on his trousers and chews through the ground at tremendous speed. I was genuinely delighted when I saw this shown on screen as I was chuffed to see it visualised extremely accurately to how I’d imagined it all those years ago.
Furthermore, this sequence had the film’s best instances of CGI, as the Time Freeze begins to unravel and sends the LEPRecon into chaos and retreat, with characters being flung hither and thither by the collapsing temporal vacuum. What’s more is this sequence had the only funny joke in the entire thing, a visual one that is entirely in-keeping with the character who makes it. The Time Freeze sequence has its fair share of curiosities that will make you question how it made it through the editing bay, but it at least had some excitement and, finally, some genuine fun.
Tragically, though, Artemis Fowl appears to be a film drenched in production issues, phoned-in performances, and a really shoddy script that fails to adapt even the simplest elements from the books. It struggles to muster any sort of imagination from its world and delivers a generic plot involving a dreaded MacGuffin that doesn’t exist in the book series at all. You’d think a film adaptation a whopping 17 years in the making would at least come up with something original.
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Josh Gad, Colin Farrell, Nonso Anozie, Judi Dench