Disney’s adaptation of Artemis Fowl feels like it has holes punched out of it. At 97 minutes long, the relentless action comes across as breathless, and the deceptively minimal plot feels abridged. Eoin Colfer’s young-adult series is made up of eight books, each focused on a 12-year-old prodigy and his dealings with fairies, dwarves, trolls, and other fantastical creatures. It’s a world ripe for adapting into a movie franchise. Disney’s take, helmed by Kenneth Branagh (who previously dipped a toe into fantasy with Disney’s live-action 2015 Cinderella), does feature a few genuinely fun setpieces and entertainingly grotesque character designs, but can’t quite smooth out its rough edges.
When the elder Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) goes missing, it falls to his son (Ferdia Shaw) to rescue him. The younger Artemis, initially skeptical over his father’s stories about fairies and other mythological creatures, is forced to reassess his beliefs when he’s contacted by his father’s kidnapper, a fairy named Opal Koboi (reportedly played by Hong Chau, more on that later), who wants Artemis to obtain a powerful fairy relic in exchange for his father’s life.
The unfolding events are framed as flashbacks being related by the dwarf Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), who has been apprehended by the human police. There’s mercifully little voiceover, though the constant asides to Mulch’s interrogation let the character steal the show right out from under Artemis’ feet. Gad isn’t exactly breaking away from playing colorful weirdos (billionaire Herman Judd in Avenue 5, Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, Olaf in the Frozen franchise), but the jokes Mulch is constantly spewing are offset by what can only be described as Gad’s best imitation of Christian Bale’s Batman voice. Mulch speaks in a growl that only breaks into the actor’s usual warble once or twice, and the copious fake hair and dirt that serves as the Mulch costume just makes the contrast more striking.
Dame Judi Dench adopts a similarly gravelly voice to play the fairy commander Julius Root. It’s the latest in a long line of “old badass” roles for her, as she shows off her magical powers under pressure and enters into scenes with fantasy-adjacent quips like, “Top of the morning.” As with Mulch, the sheer ridiculousness of the role makes Root memorable. But the same can’t be said for the film’s main character.
Shaw captures Artemis’ brattiness well, especially in early scenes where he deals with adults at his school. But Artemis devolves into the most boring character despite the movie being named after him. He’s supposedly a genius, but the only evidence of that is the characters saying he’s smart, rather than any actual choice or action that would prove their point. The characters around him also feel perfunctory, and the decision to cast black actors for his bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) and Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) feels alarming, since their roles begin and end in servitude. The most they do is put themselves in harm’s way to save Artemis, and occasionally make him food. Juliet, who initially seems positioned to become Artemis’ best friend and equal, fades into the background, with the fairy Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) taking over that role.
Even the film’s villain is forgettable. Although Chau appeared in the film’s trailers and worked on the film set in London, she’s missing from the credits, and the performance of Opal, or “Shadowy Female Figure,” is attributed to Emily Brockmann, Charlie Cameron, and Jessica Rhodes. Given that Opal’s features are always obscured, her voice is always warped, and she never actually does anything but threateningly address both the elder and younger Fowls, she pales in comparison to the more obviously magical creatures around her.
All the magical elements of the world are, luckily, impressively rendered, showing off special effects that were meant to be seen on the big screen before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the film to a streaming release. Some are silly, such as the prancing centaur (Nikesh Patel), but others, such as the fairies’ flight and a hellish fairy prison, are reminiscent of the liveliness of the first few Harry Potter films. Branagh swoops through it all as though taking viewers on a rollercoaster ride, pausing only for a moment of grotesquery involving just what makes Mulch so good at digging.
Getting to explore a new fantasy world and seeing fairy technology deployed in the human realm makes for a diverting hour and a half, as well as a refreshing change of pace from the more grimdark young-adult series that preceded Artemis Fowl (the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, the Maze Runner series). But the film falls apart under any closer inspection. The characters who should have our sympathy make little impact, and the villain is so much of a non-presence that it almost feels like the heroes are fighting against nothing. Only the biggest performances end up standing out, and Josh Gad’s is the biggest of them all.
Artemis Fowl will be released on Disney Plus on June 12.
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