It’s been almost three months since my last movie review due to the coronavirus pandemic shuttering theaters back on March 17. Although there have been a handful of movies (Trolls, Scoob! and The Lovebirds) that skirted their big screen release dates to premiere as streaming service rentals over the last couple of months, the price for entry was a bit too high for my blood for these particular films.
Had Artemis Fowl followed suit, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second look either, despite the fact that I would have gone to see all of them in the theaters. Disney, however, decided the already delayed film about a young boy who learns that the world of fairies and other magical creatures he’s been studying from a young age is actually real when his father is kidnapped, was best suited to help bolster Disney+. Thanks to The Mandalorian and all the upcoming Marvel series, I’m already a subscriber to the fledgling streaming service, so this was a perfect opportunity to get back on the review train.
Based on Eoin Colfer’s novel of the same name, Artemis Fowl is a film that doesn’t know how to handle all of its potential. With the prestigious Kenneth Branagh behind the camera as director, expectations for the film to be a high-quality kid’s adventure are elevated out of the gate. Unfortunately, that initial hope is drained within the first few minutes.
Right from the start, from the distracting makeup effects that feel xeroxed from the catalogues of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings to the way the film is structured around Josh Gad’s height-challenged dwarf narrating the events of the story to some mysterious official sitting behind a bank of computer screens, there’s an aura of staleness to everything. In other words, there isn’t enough imagination throughout to raise it above every other fairy-tale we’ve seen come before it.
I don’t put all of the blame for this on Branagh’s shoulders alone. I believe the majority of what keeps Fowl from reaching the heights of its potential is the writing, which keeps the audience from investing in the adventures of this particular world.
There is absolutely no subtlety in the film. The dialogue is so straightforward and all the events and the dynamics of the characters are pointed out so precisely, it all comes off as a paint-by-numbers expositional selling tool. It makes it seem as if writers Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl feared the audience would be too dumb to understand what was happening unless they spelled everything out in every scene — sometimes multiple times.
At the same time, no matter how deep the fairy world goes, the entire script remains surface-level at best. This lack of depth keep the protagonist’s stakes from being anything but arbitrary and manufactured, all leading to a finale that is utterly anti-climactic. All put together, it waters down the film to the point that nothing really happens to anyone and the mysteries that are setup are left to linger in some sort of sequel purgatory.
A lot of this stems from the inability of McPherson and McColl to create realistic scenarios that actually make sense. More often than not, a character is given a task to accomplish that ends up being superfluous. When Judi Dench’s high magistrate fairy sends Josh Gad’s dwarf to rescue fairy Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), that task is waylaid by his penchant for treasure hunting. It then turns out that specific task never had to be completed in the first place for irrational circumstances.
This is just one of many sequences where expectations are altered or subverted for reasons that feel forced and out of character. This includes the hectic, uneven rules for both the magic and technology involved. They are both incredibly inconsistent at best as the filmmakers attempt to create some gloriously new ideas that would have been better suited in a different film.
Because of the way the film is structured, we don’t ever get a good sense of any of the relationships either. I didn’t feel any connection or weight between Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw) and Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell) and the way McPherson and McColl handle the interactions between Artemis and Holly are abrupt, inconsequential and confusing. Their entire relationship is based on a trust that neither of them earns, leading to a bond forming between them that inorganically evolves into a dry, lackluster partnership.
It doesn’t help that the main villain of the film is hardly ever seen and doesn’t really have any consequence to the film as a whole. Her existence beyond a red herring is never explained and doesn’t really fit into the overall context of the film. Other than kidnapping Artemis Sr., you could remove this underdeveloped character and everything would play out exactly the same.
A friend said they thought this was supposed to be an episodic series as opposed to a stand-alone film, and I have to say, after watching it, Artemis Fowl certainly feels like a pilot episode to a much broader adventure series (which, under that context, probably would have made the film better). As it stands, Branagh does what he can, but the weak script, chaotic story structure and uneven characters just don’t live up to what it could have been had they given a fresh life to a whole new world.
My Grade: C
Theaters are beginning to open their doors in some parts of the country, but the first major release (Russell Crowe’s new thriller, Unhinged) isn’t set for release until July 1. If that happens, and theaters in my area are open, I will be back then with that review.
Until then, if there is an older movie or television show you would like my opinion on, let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to watch and review.