Artemis Fowl is based off a series of best-selling young adult novels. It combines high tech with mythological creatures led by a kid who’s a criminal mastermind. This should be a slam-dunk, but Kenneth Branagh‘s adaptation is a chore. I’m not exactly sure where this movie went so wrong, whether it was at a script level or in its reshoots, but the result is a movie that goes pretty much nowhere, and I mean that literally. For a film that teased some globetrotting adventure and a wild journey, Artemis Fowl is largely a siege picture with most of the action confined to Fowl Manor. While it’s an impressive set, more attention was clearly paid to the production design than anything resembling a three-dimensional character or a lived-in relationship. All Artemis Fowl has to offer is hollow plotting and bad VFX. Even as a film that’s available as part of a Disney+ subscription, you would be hard pressed to endure this joyless slog.
Artemis Fowl Jr. (Ferdia Shaw) is the genius son of antiquities dealer Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell). When a mysterious figure kidnaps Papa Fowl, the ransom is a mystical doodad called the Aoculus, which belongs to the faeries who live underground and whose society is defined by law enforcement and nothing else. To get the Aoculus, Artemis does a kidnapping of his own, and takes a young fairy officer named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), which is all part of Artemis’ plan to use the fairy forces to get him what he wants and save his dad. This plan also involves Artemis’ trusted guardian Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) and a thieving giant drawf, Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), who serves as the narrator of the story.
It’s pretty clear that Artemis Fowl is not what it was intended to be, and has been pared down considerably. If you have a world of fairies and magic, the wise thing to do would be to send your human character on a magical journey where he grows and changes by encountering fantastical things. Instead, a decision was made at some point to keep the story largely tethered to Fowl Manor, which saps the story of all its energy. Fowl Manor may be big, but we’re being teased with a much bigger world that we never really get to see. You have a fairy underworld filled with mythical creatures like dwarves and goblins (although the goblins dress in hoodies and chains for some uncomfortable reason), and then Artemis has all the action arrive at his doorstep. There probably wasn’t a point where this movie would be a theatrical hit (it was originally slated to open in August 2019 before being pushed to May 2020 and finally dumped on Disney+), but when people have been homebound for months, you don’t want to watch a movie that mostly takes place in a house.
Where Artemis Fowl truly fails is in its characters and relationships. More effort is put into the time bubble that surrounds the manor during the fairy standoff than any character in the film. The story does the bare minimum—Artemis loves his pa, he’s friends with Butler, Butler has a niece who is there for some reason, Mulch feels like an outsider because he’s bigger than an average dwarf—and calls it a day. I don’t know why Artemis and Butler are friends or what texture their relationship has. The bond between Artemis and Holly occurs because they have a two-minute heart-to-heart and then they’re “forever friends.” Artemis Fowl never seems particularly invested in a single character, and we’re left wondering why we should care either. It’s great that he’s a boy genius and that fairies have pulse weapons, but so what? There’s no investment in the emotional stakes of this story.
Without an emotional tether or action that ventures beyond Fowl Manor, Artemis Fowl is one of the dullest adventure movies in recent memory. Sure, a film like Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is bad, but at least the characters go places and do things. The best Artemis Fowl can do is when the film stumbles upon something weird like Mulch eating and defecating dirt at the same time as a means of burrowing. But because Artemis Fowl takes itself so seriously and studiously avoids being interesting, these little bizarre gems are left by the wayside. I’m not saying Josh Gad pooping dirt makes for movie magic, but it’s at least something memorable in a film this forgettable.
I can’t imagine this movie pleasing anyone. It’s drastically different than the book it’s based upon, and watching Gad or co-star Judi Dench, who plays a commander of the fairy forces, growl all their lines isn’t amusing enough to stick with this misfire. Kids deserve good, PG-rated adventure movies, but Artemis Fowl struggles to cohere let alone tell an interesting tale. Sure, you can watch it on Disney+, but you could also find countless other ways to better spend 95 minutes of your time.