ARTEMIS FOWL (DISNEY+) (2020)
SYNOPSIS: Directed by Kenneth Branagh and based on the beloved book by Eoin Colfer, ARTEMIS FOWL follows 12-year-old genius Artemis Fowl, a descendant of a long line of criminal masterminds, as he finds himself in a battle of strength and cunning against a powerful, hidden race of fairies who may be behind his father’s disappearance.
Twenty years. That’s how long fans of Eoin Colfer’s fantasy novels have been waiting for their beloved villainous prodigy to hit the big screen. Yet that anticipation will likely be replaced by disappointment, for director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation does little justice to its source material.
Those (like yours truly) who have read the books will know that it would have been impossible to retain all that detail in the space of a two-hour movie, but neither would you be expecting that screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl condense two of the books - ‘Artemis Fowl’ and ‘Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident’ – to such extent, while taking significant liberties with the narrative along the way.
Opening with the interrogation of one Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), whose account serves as a lazy exposition device, it recounts how the 12-year-old Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) was tossed into an adventure involving fairies, dwarves and magical artefacts after his father Artemis Senior (Colin Farrell) is nabbed by a shadowy figure named Opal Koboi. Unless you’ve read the books, you’ll be left wondering throughout the movie just what Opal wants with Artemis Senior.
The rest of the plot is equally a blur – there is the Lower Elements Police division LEPRecon, whose chief Commander Root (Judi Dench) is in a perpetually foul mood, and whose rookie officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) is all too willing to disobey orders to clear her father’s name; there is Artemis, his loyal bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonzo Anozie, a Branagh regular) and Butler’s whipsmart niece Juliet (Tamara Smart), whose plan to rescue Artemis Senior leads them to cross paths with Holly; and last but not least, there is Mulch, a kleptomaniac who is unleashed from prison to retrieve the artifact called the Aculos which Opal is likewise after.
It may read like a lot, but the storytelling is both too busy and too shallow at the same time. There is too little detail in each of these subplots, leaving you wondering what this Aculos is that is so precious yet dangerous, what Opal wants with it (and with Artemis Senior) and how it manages to save the day. There is also little character-building, so much so that you’ll be unsure what to make of Artemis Jr at the end of the film or of the unlikely alliance forged among Artemis, Holly and Mulch. And there is also hardly any world-building, so the entire hidden underground world of fairies feels utterly uncompelling.
Blame Branagh and his writers for reducing the rich source material to near-nothingness. Instead of a brilliant young criminal mastermind, we get a brilliant young kid who only wants to be reunited with his father. Instead of the fate of humanity at stake, the only real stakes here seem to be the Fowl Manor at the edge of the Irish coast and the guests at an Italian wedding party. As a result, instead of magic, we get pure mechanics in a by-the-numbers plotting which feels Disney-fied for worse.
For all these reasons, there is little relief that ‘Artemis Fowl’ is finally out of development hell after languishing for two decades. What could have been a fascinating new YA franchise is reduced to a film that is uninspiring, especially with Mulch coming off like a poor cousin of Hagrid and Butler coming off like a ‘Men in Black'. It’s a cluttered mess all right, complete with shoddy VFX that will make you wonder where all that budget went. By the time the sequel-baiting ending rolls around, you’ll be left doubting whether the producers were better off leaving the books alone in the first place.
Review by Gabriel Chong