'Artemis Fowl': Film Review

Not entirely foul, but a charmless chore.

Kenneth Branagh brings Eoin Colfer's bestselling YA novel to the screen in this fantasy adventure featuring Josh Gad, Colin Farrell and Judi Dench, which premieres on Disney+.

How lathered up you get over Know-It-All Baby Chris Colfer and Feisty Baby Saoirse Ronan (I'll find their actual names in a minute) joining forces to overcome a dark threat to both the human and fairy worlds in Artemis Fowl will probably depend on one thing only — your existing affection for the novels by Eoin Colfer. This long-in-development adaptation, directed with misplaced bravado by Kenneth Branagh, has enough plot for four or five movies, none of which you will want to see. The idea of bringing a popular YA franchise — more than 25 million copies sold worldwide — to the screen is to expand the fan base, not shrink it.

Josh Gad takes a valiant stab at landing some mostly groan-worthy humor, and Judi Dench has clearly put in a lot of hours scowling at green screens while wearing pointy ears and eye-catching emerald-green leprechaun army regalia (hey, at least it's not a cat suit). But this big-budget fantasy adventure from Disney is busy and exhausting. The change of plans from a theatrical release to a Disney+ streaming premiere will guarantee an audience. But how many of the uninitiated will stick with it through the onslaught of hastily drawn characters and unexciting action is another matter. I was checking out long before the rampaging mutant troll showed up and started pulverizing the antiques.

The movie is by no means the first to indulge in genre gluttony. It wants to captivate you with magic and bizzaro creatures in the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts vein while dazzling you with high-tech gadgets and geekery. It makes a big deal of its foundations in Irish mythology but also bombards you with a blur of Star Wars-grade military hardware. Perhaps most tiresome are its efforts to milk humor from the anachronistic collision of olde worlde quaintness with winking modern-day attitudes.

Gad, for instance, plays Mulch Diggums, a "giant dwarf" and compulsive thief with the same stylist as Hagrid, who grooves to the Foreigner power ballad "I Want to Know What Love Is" and says things like "You do you, Foaly" to a centaur tech officer (Nikesh Patel). Within the scheme of Disney's schizoid mashups, Artemis Fowl is not as clunky as, say, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. But it's in that same deadening ballpark.

One major disappointment is the squelching of pretty much any of the distinctive qualities that make Conor McPherson one of Ireland's greatest living playwrights. The eerie thread connecting the ancient mysteries of Irish folklore with the modern world in his work gets dumbed down beyond recognition in his overstuffed screenplay here, which was co-written with Hamish McColl and departs significantly from the book.

The film opens with a quick sweep along majestic coastline (Whiterocks Beach, Portrush and Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland are the most spectacular of the locations) before closing in on a media frenzy surrounding remote Fowl Manor.

The theft of priceless relics from some of the world's most famous museums has led authorities to Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell), a wealthy art and antiquities dealer who has abruptly gone missing. A suspicious repeat offender found in the area, Gad's Diggums, is apprehended and taken to a British Intelligence interrogation unit for questioning. A Big Brother-type complex inside an elevated platform structure in the Thames estuary, the set is one of several impressive elements from production designer Jim Clay, whose physical work is tricked out with extensive CGI.

Threatened with life in prison, Diggums spills his version of the story, making him narrator and comic relief. He directs his unseen interrogator's attention to the brains of the operation, 12-year-old Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw), a boy genius — architect, biotechnology scientist, chess champion — shown to be too smart for school. Just to be sure young audiences don't dismiss him as another bookish prig, we watch him surfing massive waves off the rocky coast and cruising through woodlands on a cool mono-wheel skateboard; though those talents are quickly forgotten in the story, like the art heist.

"Let me show you the infinite possibilities of magic," says Diggums, raising our hopes as he proceeds to describe the civilization of fairies living in bustling Haven City at the center of the world. Much like Wakanda in Black Panther, this thriving metropolis is light years ahead of ordinary mortals above ground, full of holograms and chyrons and advanced technological gizmos, though there's a menacing hint of oppressive overlords in the constant references to "the executors."

Representing their eyes and ears is a snippy lieutenant (Joshua McGuire) who quotes Pretty Woman ("Big mistake") while plotting a power grab. But he's no match for stern Commander Root (Dench), whose three-packs-a-day rasp makes sense when she reveals that her 803rd birthday is coming up. She sometimes gets around on a mobile podium, like Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer, and offsets her grouchy countenance with occasional folksy Irishisms, like "Top o' the mornin'."

Having learned everything about the world of fairies, dwarfs, sprites, goblins, leprechauns and whatever from his father, Artemis Jr. has always believed them to be strictly mythological. But when he gets a ransom call from evil pixie Opal Koboi (Hong Chau, uncredited), he soon discovers that their secret realm does indeed exist. Artemis Sr. stole the Aculos, one of those powerful weapons like the unfortunately named Codex in Man of Steel that everybody wants or fears without ever quite managing to explain what it actually does. Anyway, Opal wants it back.

Commander Root also wants it, to control its danger to the fairy world and keep them hidden from humankind. She enlists Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), an elf officer with LEPrecon law enforcement, who is 84 but looks the same age as Artemis Jr., allowing for some flirty friction when they inevitably meet. Like Artemis, Holly is troubled by the slandering of her father's name, so she goes rogue, teaming with the human lad in the clash between their two worlds.

Additional help comes from the Fowl family manservant, martial arts and weapons expert Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie), and his niece (switched from his sister in the book) Juliet (Tamara Smart); she’s supposedly another tactical reconnaissance ace though she doesn't get to do much and seems to be forgotten for great stretches of the climactic battle. This is also where Duggins enters the story.

About that battle: It goes on and on, involving convoluted information about time freezes and memory wipes and a full-scale Normandy-type invasion with spacecraft landing on the beach disgorging armed troops. But it becomes a wearying slog, with too little reason to invest in the bland characters amid all the chaos. The stakes just never feel terribly high, even if all-out war between worlds is on the cards. Opal gives Artemis Jr. three days to find and return the Aculus, and anxious folks are constantly shouting things like, "The time freeze is going to collapse any second now!" But even when composer Patrick Doyle trades the corny Celtic pipes and whistles for full-throttle, frenetic orchestral action mode, the suspense is minimal. 

While Branagh did an adequate job in similar territory on Thor, he tends to lose the human dimension when juggling too much f/x-heavy technology. With Opal seen primarily as a beam of green light beneath a hooded cloak, even the villain of the story feels insipid, despite her Thanos-style plan for world domination, restoring the fairies to their rightful place as superior beings. The director teams again with his longtime cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos to deliver polished visuals, though aside from some scenic beauty, there's nothing here to rival the vibrancy of their work on, say, Cinderella.

Gad does what he can with the material he's given, but the film places an unfair burden on Duggins to engage us with cheeky humor where overblown action fails. Farrell mostly sits this one out, bringing a shot of paternal warmth to his few scenes that's more Disney 101 than genuinely touching. The poignancy of a motherless boy yearning for the love of his frequently absent father is strictly routine. Dench spends the whole time looking quite cross with our Ken, and who can blame her? Young leads Shaw and McDonnell are perfectly fine, but if I said I found either of them captivating I'd be exaggerating.

Ample seeds are planted that Artemis Jr. will join his dad and continue the long family line of criminal masterminds in an ongoing franchise, or at least a sequel. Hard pass.

Production company: TKBC, Walt Disney Studios
Distributor: Disney+
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Joshua McGuire, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench, Nikesh Patel
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriters: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl, based on the novel by Eoin Colfer
Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund
Executive producers: Matthew Jenkins, Angus More Gordon
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Jim Clay
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Music: Patrick Doyle
Editor: Matthew Tucker
Visual effects supervisor: Charley Henley
Visual effects producer: Barries Hemsley
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Rated PG, 94 minutes