The first of Disney’s planned theatrical releases to swerve cinemas and debut on streaming service Disney+ due to Covid-19 restrictions, Artemis Fowl is – in one way – a trailblazer. Alas, it’s the only way this underwhelming, clearly compromised franchise-wannabe stands out.
Adapted from Eoin Colfer’s novels about the eponymous, 12-year-old criminal mastermind, Kenneth Branagh’s film smoothes the rough edges (Fowl’s rap sheet here would barely land him detention), and presents something more palatable to younger viewers. When Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell) is abducted by a mysterious hooded figure, Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw) learns the truth about the family business – there’s a secret world of fairies, trolls, goblins, dwarves, centaurs and sprites at the centre of the Earth, and Fowl Jr. needs their prized artefact, the Aculos, to save his father.
Smothered in lavish VFX, Artemis Fowl may look like a step up from your typical streaming release, but in every other respect it feels more suited to couch consumption. An early line tantalisingly promises to “show you the infinite possibilities of magic”. By the end you’ll still be pondering what any those possibilities are. An odd mishmash of Harry Potter, Men In Black and Die Hard, it bounds from one set-piece to the next with little sense of storytelling cohesion or even a passing interest in exploring its characters.
Running 95 minutes (including credits), it smacks of a film that’s been hobbled in post. Opening with not one but two egregious exposition dumps, multiple scenes from the trailers are MIA, the identity of key characters is left a complete mystery – presumably for far-from-guaranteed sequels – and it arrives at a lengthy climactic Fowl manor sequence so abruptly that it feels like an entire second act is missing. No sooner has Artemis Jr. first learned the truth about magical creatures than they’re already knocking on his front door, skipping through a bafflingly brief glimpse of Haven City, home of the fairies.
There are moments of entertaining ingenuity; the sight of Josh Gad’s oversized dwarf Mulch Diggums dislocating his jaw and excreting soil as he tunnels through the ground is a sight you won’t soon forget, and a destructive troll attack is well realised. But very little of what’s here works. Sadly, whether down to miscasting or the choice to have him wear sunglasses for much of the film, Ferdia Shaw’s Artemis reads flat on screen, while Gad and Judi Dench (who plays the commander of the fairy police) both seem to have turned up to work with croaky throats and stuck with it.
It’s not clear who the film is even for. Anyone who grew up reading Colfer’s novels over a decade ago will have moved on. And unlike later Potter films, there’s none of the darkness or depth to appeal beyond the youngest viewers. Barely serviceable as a lockdown time-filler, this is a major (Arte)misfire.