The Artemis Fowl books are almost 20 years old. Eoin Colfer’s first acerbic, morally complex novel was released in 2001, introducing the world to its unconventional protagonist — an utterly unrepentant, 12-year-old “criminal mastermind”. It doesn’t seem like the most obvious material for a Disney blockbuster and, certainly, after well over a decade in the making and multiple delays, the result is a disappointing dud that has had much of its rougher edges smoothed off.
This version of Artemis — as played by Irish newcomer Ferdia Shaw — is merely a slightly annoying, precocious kid who enjoys talking about fairies with his loving, but often absent, father (Colin Farrell). When his dad is kidnapped by a mysterious foe in search of a powerful fairy artefact called the Aculos, Artemis abducts fairy cop Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) in an attempt to engineer his release.
It’s one of many changes screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl have made from the original novel, which they’ve notably cross-pollinated with elements of second book The Arctic Incident in order to introduce Artemis Fowl Sr, at the expensive of Artemis’s mother, Angeline. This leaves vital supporting characters, including Nonso Anozie’s towering Butler and dwarf Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) rather adrift in terms of the story, though Mulch essentially provides a perfunctory framing device, largely in order to ensure the cinematically ever-present Gad gets plenty of screen time.
The result of all of this is a muddled, fractured tangle of storylines that leave the movie wallowing in exposition at the expense of excitement. The simplicity of the book’s siege structure is abandoned for a pinballing tale that sacrifices coherence and squanders the introduction of the series’ stellar roster of colourful characters. Kenneth Branagh’s athletic camera weaves through some impressive sets and the CGI is routinely strong — notably when it comes to some grotesque, Cockney goblins — but there’s just no meat on the bone.
Shaw does admirable work as Artemis, but the character’s Disneyfied portrayal here as a plucky young hero working to save his father sits awkwardly with the direction he takes in the final act. Lara McDonnell as more successful as the determined fairy Holly, but their antagonistic battle of wills is very much relegated to a minor portion of the leaden narrative. Even worse is true of Judi Dench, whose fairy commander’s actual role in the story is almost as confused as her wandering, somewhere-in-Ireland accent.
Every element of Artemis Fowl screams confusion, with multiple moments glimpsed in early publicity — including a trip to Vietnam — excised for a 90-minute adventure that feels more like a fleeting, truncated glimpse at an expansive world than it does a self-contained story. It’s like looking at the Artemis Fowl story through a crack in a door.
Bizarrely, the central thesis of Branagh’s movie appears to be to replace the moral complexity of the novel with narrative complexity, creating endless MacGuffins and contrivances of fairy lore, while abandoning fundamental elements of the mythology Colfer created.
This would all be forgivable if the resulting movie held together and entertained, but this collapses under the weight of its own befuddling knot-tying. It’s steadfastly unamusing throughout — Gad delivers an awkward, wordy David Bowie gag and Dench earns probably unintentional giggles with her po-faced delivery of an Irish cliché — and almost entirely devoid of personality. Much as with the barely-glimpsed subterranean metropolis of Haven City, there’s a sense with Artemis Fowl that the real excitement is concealed — tantalisingly hinted at, but just beyond our reach.
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Scr: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Colin Farrell, Nonso Anozie, Tamara Smart, Nikesh Patel, Adrian Scarborough, Joshua McGuire
Prd: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund
DOP: Haris Zambarloukos
Music: Patrick Doyle
Run time: 95 mins
Artemis Fowl is available to stream on Disney+ from 12th June.