The ambition for Artemis Fowl – an adaption taken from Eoin Colfer’s popular eight-book collection charting the adventures preternaturally smart 12-year-old, of a super-bright Irish boy through fairyland – is clear the minute Total Film (opens in new tab) steps on to the elaborate Longcross Studios set on a drizzly morning in April 2018.
High up on the former tank ramps of this latter-day military base sits a brooding mansion; brick-built, fully functioning (electricity, lighting, heating – just no plumbing) and evidently designed to last. This is the ancestral home of the titular kid, and it’s decked out in intricate detail (12,000+ real books line the library, the insides of the cavernous kitchen cupboards are completely dressed), the crew plan to strike and store the sets rather than the usual practice of destroying and recycling... It’s not a leap of the imagination to think the studio might be hoping to follow in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling’s hit series as another barnstorming family franchise.
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The subject matter also makes comparisons unavoidable; Artemis (newcomer Ferdia Shaw), a preternaturally smart 12-year-old, finds himself thrown into a magical world of trolls, fairies and dwarves when his father (Colin Farrell) goes missing and is ransomed for one tonne of fairy gold. Cracking folklore codes to find his way to the subterranean sprite world of Haven City, he meets police commander Root (Judi Dench), spirited police captain Holly (Lara McDonnell) and a criminal, earth- munching dwarf, Mulch (Josh Gad) in an adventure that sees him using his wits and ingenuity to evade full-blown war with the magical realm.
“This first movie – if it is a first movie, and definitely if it isn’t – becomes what in the case of the former would be an origin story,” director Kenneth Branagh says when TF sits down with him in Fowl library. “In the case of the latter, hopefully a satisfying account of how a guy who does not know about magic or the workings and secret business practices of his father, has to go through a story that puts to him the idea: does he think being villainous is good? A criminal? All of these sort of grownup things that the story is forcing him to embrace.” Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express co-star Gad is more certain about the boy wizard-shaped hole that Artemis Fowl could fill: “There hasn’t been a new Harry Potter in a long time – this feels like the answer to that.”
"The antithesis to Harry Potter"
Artemis, though, isn’t as sweet as Harry in the books. A bit of a villain in his opening adventure, he’s unafraid to use kidnapping, deception, theft and manipulation to get his goals. “In many ways, I think Artemis is almost the antithesis to Harry,” muses Gad while dressed in huge dwarf beard and bedraggled costume (did we mention his character eats soil with a grotesque dislocated jaw and excretes it as he tunnels?).
“Whereas Harry is an empty vessel who’s going on this journey of discovery, and there’s an innocence that, along the way, becomes a little bit darkened by his experiences. Artemis starts almost at the end of Harry’s journey. He’s wise beyond his years, doesn’t have the magical abilities of Harry, and so he has to compensate for it with intellect. I mean, the writer once described this book as Die Hard with fairies.”
Certainly, Artemis’ look is more MIB than Hogwarts in the scene we watch filming. Dressed in a natty little black suit and tie, Shaw – along with Gad and Nonso Anozie’s Butler – battles a giant troll puppet (created by the team behind War Horse) by using the soothing power of Foreigner’s ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ to lull him to sleep amid destruction in the manor. The cast riff different versions of the crooning, much to Branagh’s delight, and it’s that often-playful and creative juxtaposition of real-world and magical realm that appealed to him about Colfer’s stories.
“It felt very original,” he enthuses between takes, admitting that, as a Belfast man, he also loved the ‘Irishness’ of the project. “I loved the sort of collision – the proximity of [human and fairy] worlds. I liked that creatively. I had some experience with it making Thor where a very contemporary feeling, and a still heightened world of science, is right next door to a world of magic.”
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Like Potter, Artemis Fowl also debuts unknowns in key roles. Branagh auditioned over 1,200 boys for the role before discovering Shaw. And of course, he could speed-dial those he’d worked with previously in the shape of Dench, Gad and Anozie – plus sneak Colin Farrell in late in the process (only revealed as Fowl Sr. in the recent second trailer drop). But will Branagh be cameoing himself? “There are moves for this to happen – by other people,” he chuckles. “Literally yesterday – secretly, a pair of fairy ears were left on my desk, unattributed. Nobody said who they were for. But there was an indication...”
Originally slated for a spring theatrical release, Artemis Fowl will now bow on Disney Plus instead amid Covid-19 lockdowns. Will that affect the impact of scale that Branagh originally designed? Possibly not if the intention of Fowl’s moral ambiguity is realised for an audience democratised by global events. “This kid... hopefully he’ll invite our audience to want to come and be here with him, and to be in a place that’s crazy and warm, but not exclusive. So to that extent, he may be, if not sympathetic, then recognisable – a little more ‘one of us’.”
This article originally appeared in the Free Guy issue of Total Film. Subscribe to the magazine now (opens in new tab)and get features like this – and more – sent directly to your door/device. Artemis Fowl reaches Disney Plus on June 12.