Artemis Fowl review: An elf and safety nightmare

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the boy-genius antihero sands off the source material’s darker edges for Disney+.

Butler, Holly, Mulch, Artemis
2.0 out of 5 star rating

As cinemas stand shuttered and release dates continue to moonwalk into the horizon, the movie landscape looks pretty desolate at the moment, with the only films coming out via On-Demand platforms or when planned studio releases are shifted to digital.

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And in the latter camp we find Artemis Fowl, a long-awaited adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s 2001 fantasy novel of the same name that follows a 12-year-old criminal mastermind as he kidnaps a fairy and holds her to ransom from her magical brethren, including Judi Dench’s gravelly-voiced Commander Root (originally a male character gender-switched for the adaptation).

Uniquely amongst Disney’s 2020 slate, this film has sacrificed its theatrical release for an exclusive Disney+ slot – and unfortunately this method of distribution does nothing to dilute a sense of the film being a direct-to-DVD damp squib.

Featuring stilted performances, a rushed plot and some inexplicable changes to the source material, Artemis Fowl is far from the magical adventure many were hoping for. In fact, with director Kenneth Branagh sanding off the book’s darker edges to play it safe and create a more palatable adventure story, it’s a bit of an elf – and safety – nightmare.

Ferdia Shaw stars here as the titular Artemis, a cold-blooded child prodigy with a devilish aim to kidnap a fairy (Lara McDonnell) – but only about 50 per cent of the time. You see, the film can’t quite decide if Artemis is a ruthless criminal mastermind (as he is in the books) or whether he’s a smart-ish ordinary kid who loves surfing, wears hoodies and is generally a pretty nice guy.

Even scene to scene this seems to shift. In one exchange with a school psychologist (lifted very closely from Colfer’s text) he’s heartless, arrogant and disaffected – but moments later he’s chatting to his father (Colin Farrell) like a well-behaved child. Later in the film he’s sparring with Fairy Commander Root (Judi Dench) like a Bond villain, despite having entirely pure motives for his actions.

The effect is that you never quite get a sense of Artemis, or what he’s doing. He’s apparently a genius, but he inherits all his knowledge of the fairy folk and technology (which in the books, he comes by on his own). He’s a villain, but he only kidnaps someone to free his father, while still cruelly taunting his captive. Sometimes it feels like you’re watching two different films, one more loyal to Colfer’s antihero and one that tries to make him a more generic (and heroic) tweenage protagonist.

Of course, this isn’t the only big change from page to screen. When Artemis Fowl’s latest trailer came out fans were aghast at just how much the original book’s story had been altered, and there are some odd shifts in this story – an entirely new fairy artefact called “The Aculos” and the inclusion of Artemis’ father, played by Colin Farrell, being the main culprits – but given the promotion of the film I was also surprised by just how much of the original story did make it in.

Artemis does still abduct a Lower Elements Police: Reconnaissance officer (LEPRecon, geddit?), ransom her to the fairies and end up battling an army of magical creatures, but these elements are awkwardly corralled alongside a new backstory where Farrell is a sort of fairy tech expert abducted by a generic villain, forcing Artemis to commit crimes to free his dad, all tied to a magical MacGuffin that appears to allow the holder to do just about anything.

Lingering just out of shot, you get a sense of a film that might have been. A crucial book scene featured in the film’s trailer of Artemis and bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie, underused here) travelling to Ho Chi Minh City and meeting a sprite is axed entirely, while announced characters like Artemis’ mother (supposedly played by Miranda Raison) never appear. Other characters like Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) crop up, do little then fade into the background, suggesting a larger role in a different cut.

In fact, at a pacy 95 minutes the film doesn’t spend too long with anyone, rushing into unearned emotional climaxes and bizarre story beats (including a secondary villain who just vanishes at the end of the film), generally giving the sense that this fairly action-packed story could have been served with a little more time to breathe. Perhaps the shift to on-demand meant a shorter runtime, or maybe this was always the plan – either way, it leaves the film feeling thin.

Judi Dench Root

There are glimmers of potential from time to time. Dame Judi Dench, head-to-toe in emerald armour and with prosthetic elf ears, stepping out of a spaceship to dourly intone “Top of the Morning to you” is a hint at the campy fun the film aspires to, while the looming underground fairy world of Haven brilliantly captures Colfer’s on-page worldbuilding panache.

But there are far more clanging missteps to counter even these small green shoots. The child actors try hard but deliver some groan-worthy dialogue (“come and get some, you big meanie,” shouted at an attacking troll was a personal highlight), while the film’s villain is a faceless, voiceless figure whose true motives never become clear.

Elsewhere, some pretty sketchy CGI mars otherwise impressive set and character design while the odd narration (a sometimes-there framing device delivered by Josh Gad’s oversized dwarf Mulch) tries and fail to add any gravitas to a CBBC-light story.

Overall, it’s not too hard to see why Disney were willing to try this film in the On-Demand milieu – because in this adaptation, some brilliant source material is rather Fowled up.

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Artemis Fowl is available to stream on Disney+ from Friday 12th June