Review: Artemis Fowl is a crushing disappointment


Artemis Fowl fans loudly trumpeted their displeasure online when the second trailer for the film adaption of the beloved YA books dropped in March, in advance of its debut on Disney+. Their objection: It looked like a significant departure from the evil boy genius of the novels in favor of a more Disney-friendly heroic figure. At the time, I adopted a “wait and see” attitude, since it’s generally a good idea to see the actual film before passing judgement. Alas, that optimism was ill-founded. Artemis Fowl, the movie, is a spectacle-filled pointless slog that will be a crushing disappointment for book fans. The young criminal mastermind has been watered down and “Disney-fied” beyond recognition, just as fans feared.

(Spoilers below.)

There are eight books in the Artemis Fowl series, detailing the extensive exploits of the titular character. The debut novel received generally positive reviews and a few comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, although Eoin Colfer’s books have never achieved the same stratospheric commercial success. The comparison irritates Colfer, who describes his novels as being more like “Die Hard with fairies.” As I wrote when the first teaser dropped way back in November 2018, “That’s a fairly accurate description. Artemis is the anti-Harry Potter. He’s a thief and a kidnapper, among other misdeeds, and he is largely untroubled by remorse. That’s part of his charm.”

In the first book, 12-year-old Artemis is living mostly unsupervised in the Fowl home. His father (Artemis Fowl I) is missing, and his mother has gone mad with grief. He relies on his loyal protector, Butler, for companionship. They stumble across a portal to the fairy underworld: a magical place that includes a Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance (LEPrecon), trolls, dwarves, and goblins, all located beneath the “real” human world.

Artemis decides to kidnap a fairy and hold her for ransom to fund his search for his father. The fairies retaliate, and Artemis must pit his wits against their magical powers. It’s fiction, so he naturally succeeds, plus his mother is cured of her madness. Artemis goes on to rescue his father from the Russian mafia in the second book (Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident) and ends up in an alliance with the fairies he battled originally to help them defeat a goblin army.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation takes its key elements from those first two books. Per the official premise:

[The film] follows the journey of 12-year-old genius Artemis Fowl, a descendant of a long line of criminal masterminds, as he seeks to find his father who has mysteriously disappeared. With the help of his loyal protector Butler, Artemis sets out to find him, and in doing so uncovers an ancient, underground civilization—the amazingly advanced world of fairies. Deducing that his father’s disappearance is somehow connected to the secretive, reclusive fairy world, cunning Artemis concocts a dangerous plan—so dangerous that he ultimately finds himself in a perilous war of wits with the all-powerful fairies.

Although Colfer told the Guardian, “I’ve seen about a third of it and it does look pretty close [to the books],” there are some pretty significant departures. I am not a stickler for accuracy when it comes to adapting books to film or television; different mediums have very different requirements. But Branagh and screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl appear to have utterly misunderstood everything about Artemis Fowl that appealed to fans in the first place.  Die Hard with fairies? Not even close. Did they even read the books?

Let’s start with Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) himself, who is already a full-fledged criminal mastermind in the first book, having taken over the family business when his father went missing. Branagh tried to turn the film into more of a traditional origin story, so Artemis is not even aware of the true nature of the family business when we meet him. His worst behavior is being insolent and arrogant with the school counselor. We are also treated to several rather maudlin scenes of the father teaching his son about the fairies prior to his disappearance. (Unlike in the books, his mother is dead.) Sure, the boy genius has some daddy issues, but nobody wants an emo version of Artemis Fowl. Alas, that’s mostly what Branagh has given us.

Most maddening of all, the Fowl family enterprise has been reimagined as a secretly heroic endeavor. While everyone assumes Artemis Fowl I is a thief of rare artifacts, we learn that he was actually just trying to save the world from a malevolent pixie named Opal Koboi (the villain in the second book) who wants an all-powerful device called the Aculos (entirely invented for the film). What does the Aculos do? It’s not entirely clear, but opening portals to other dimensions and/or teleportation seem to be involved. Holly, too, is ostracized because her fellow fairies assume her own father, Birchwood (another invention for the film) was a traitor. But of course, he joined forces with Artemis Fowl I to keep the Aculos from falling into the wrong hands.

Die Hard with fairies? Not even close.

There are some decent performances here, most notably Colin Farrell as Artemis Fowl I and Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums, a freakishly large kleptomaniac dwarf (“Dwarfus giganticus!”) who also narrates the story for some reason. Lara McDonnell makes a likably plucky Holly Short, an elvenreconaissance officer for LEPrecon who is kidnapped by Artemis and ends up joining forces with him to foil Opal’s scheme. There are a couple of solidly entertaining action scenes, such as when Holly battles an escaped troll crashing a human wedding, and some decent special effects—although the style is generic fantasy that really doesn’t capture the fairy world’s intriguing mix of science and magic from the books.

Those small bright spots can’t save the film. There’s not much world-building to speak of, and the characters exist solely as quickly drawn sketches; they are not developed in the least. So it’s hard to buy into the sudden bond between Artemis and Holly over their lost fathers, for instance. The narration is ham-fisted, the plot is nonsensical, and the dialogue is leaden and often cheesy. A slow-motion scene of young Artemis dropping a glass of milk in shock when he learns his father is missing is laughably inept.

It’s hard not to wonder if part of the problem has something to do with the many delays of the film’s release. It was originally slated for last August, until Disney’s merger with 20th Century Fox prompted a major reshuffling. Unlike The New Mutants, there were no rumors (confirmed or otherwise) of reshoots requested for Artemis Fowl. So the studio didn’t seem to have any issues with the actual film. Then the pandemic happened, and Disney decided to release the film on Disney+ and cut their losses, which I think was the right decision.

As I noted in March, “Branagh is a gifted director who has shown he can handle mythical fantasy realms (Thor) and knows how to create a ruthless yet vulnerable villain/antihero (cf. the enormous popularity of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the MCU). He’s perfectly capable of doing the same for Artemis Fowl.”  But this doesn’t even feel like a Branagh-directed film. The editing is clumsy and choppy, and so many plot points seem to be missing—including an entire scene that featured heavily in the first trailer—that this feels like half a film. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that additional heavy edits were made to accommodate the streaming platform.

Artemis Fowl is currently streaming on Disney+. I’d recommend giving it a miss and reading (or re-reading) Colfer’s books instead. No disappointing film adaption can take their magic away.

Bringing Artemis Fowl to life featurette.

Listing image by Disney



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