If you wandered through a book store’s YA section back in the early aughts, chances were good your eye would eventually be caught by one of the glittering, golden cardboard standees stocked full of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, a novel about a criminal boy genius with designs on carrying out the most impressive heist in either human or fairy history. This week, Disney finally releases its long-awaited adaptation to the world.
Colfer’s novel and its subsequent follow-ups were the exact kind of edgy wish-fulfillment that spoke to kids who, feeling misunderstood by their peers and parents, lost themselves in books and technology out of a desire to feel more grown-up than they actually were. It’s a character trait that defined Artemis himself. It’s no surprise that Hollywood’s been trying to turn Artemis Fowl into a film ever since the first book in the series dropped in 2001, but what was interesting is how the project languished in development hell for well over a decade, as no studio seemed to be able to crack the code as to just how to bring Artemis’ story to the big screen. Disney has come awfully close with Kenneth Branagh’s new Artemis Fowl adaptation
In another world, one without the covid-19 pandemic, the movie would have hit theaters later this summer. But we live in this world where Artemis Fowl is finally here, set to stream on Disney+ tomorrow. To call it a faithful adaptation of the source material would be wildly inaccurate because the film is less about introducing the world to its first preteen Bond villain, and more about telling the story of a lonely boy who wants nothing more than to be with his father.
Long before we meet Artemis Fowl himself (newcomer Ferdia Shaw) the film opens on one Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) a thieving, and unusually large, dwarf whose presence is felt throughout the film by way of a number rather distracting voice overs. Mulch’s connections to noted art collector/dealer and suspected thief Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) put him squarely on law enforcement’s radar. Gad’s Mulch is...well, Josh Gad in Hagrid drag, which sounds delightful on paper, but in action, the character doesn’t quite work and is nowhere near as filthy as his book counterpart. As Mulch begins to tell the tale of how they came to be associates, Artemis Fowl smoothly shifts focus to its main character.
Where the novel’s Artemis is already in full control of his family’s (struggling) criminal empire and fighting to restore honor to his name, the film version is presented quite differently. He’s a brilliant child who lives a relatively “normal” life involving school with other kids and days spent wandering around his palatial home with his father, who insists on teaching his son everything there is to know about Irish mythology.
Being a genius makes it difficult for Artemis to take people his own age and other adults remotely seriously, but his father—who he has nothing but respect and love for—is his entire world. It’s what makes news reports that the elder Fowl is suspected of stealing priceless pieces of art and culture, like the Rosetta Stone, so devastating to the boy. As Artemis, Shaw’s rather staid in moments where he’s meant to show true emotion, and you get the sense that the actor’s trying to strike an uneven balance between book Artemis’ frosty near-sociopathy, and movie Artemis’ wonder at the adventure he’s embarking upon.
Artemis’ relationship with his father is the film’s first and biggest deviation from the books because it brings an emotional warmth to the story that feels decidedly un-Artemis Fowl. The movie kicks into gear just as Fowl Sr. suddenly disappears. Artemis receives a cryptic phone call from a shadowy figure informing him he has three days to find a deliver the “Aculos”—the latest in a long line of cinematic MacGuffins—if he ever wants to see his father again. What Artemis quickly comes to realize is that all of the fairy tales his father read to him every night weren’t just stories, but preparation to learn about Fowl Sr.’s secret work: research into the existence of fairies and magic.
Artemis Fowl’s plot moves at a brisk pace that gives the overall film the feeling of being rushed, as evidenced by the family’s long-term manservant Domovoi Butler (Game of Thrones’ Nonso Anozie) popping up rather suddenly after not being on screen for a significant chunk of the first act. Butler reveals many of the secrets Artemis’ father hid from him—a library full of arcane knowledge all relating to the fae folk—and the pair immediately get down to the business of crafting a plan to make the Aculos theirs, a plan that requires them to catch a fairy.
The film unsurreptitiously pivots directly into the world of fairies by bringing us to Haven City, the fairy capital. There we meet a member of the technologically advanced Lower Elements Police (LEPrecon), Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), as she’s booking the latest batch of magical law-breakers. Hollow and rushed as much of Artemis Fowl’s story itself is, set pieces like Haven are a truly gorgeous blends of Lord of the Rings’ Shire and Black Panther’s Wakanda. It says a lot about the film that the shots of the city’s public transportation are infinitely more interesting than any of the (generally tame) fight sequences that take place.
Artemis Fowl has an opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the world of fairies and depict what day to day life for them is like, but instead, the focus rests almost entirely on LEPrecon and its leader Commander Root (Judi Dench), a no-nonsense cop who delivers the best line in the film when she tells someone to “go four-leaf clover” themselves.
There are a grand number of other minor plot details that push the film forward, but it’s Artemis’ confrontation with LEPrecon that stands out the most because it encapsulates how the film treats outsized displays of the militarized police as spectacles meant to be “cool.” The fairies have all the magic in the world, but they handle their business with a variety of guns, tanks, and ships that, while otherworldly, are presented almost like future tech that Artemis himself is amazed by. Given the current conversations about the ways in which real-world police across the country use their outsized budgets to outfit officers with gear designed for war, this aspect of Artemis Fowl comes across as decidedly tone-deaf. But to be fair, this was a significant element of the book’s world-building.
Artemis Fowl is very much a kid’s movie, which is perfectly fine, as those of us who grew up reading the books really aren’t the target audience at this point (the series never really made an effort to age up with its audience). It’s interesting to think about the reality that Disney originally planned for Artemis Fowl to have a proper theatrical release because it feels, more than anything else, like a very expensive movie that belongs on Disney+. It’s by no means an awful film, but for all of its magical trappings, the moments where it achieves true movie magical realness are few and far between.
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