Since the unbelievable success of the Harry Potter films, every studio and their mother has been trying to find the next young adult IP to make into a money-printing franchise. The Hunger Games is the only one that succeeded, leaving behind other critical or commercial flops like Divergent, The Maze Runner, Cirque du Freak, Ender’s Game, Eragon, The Mortal Instruments, and especially Percy Jackson to recede into just another bad memory for millennials. Since the third Divergent film did so badly in theaters that the forth film was scrapped, it seems that Hollywood has finally taken note and given up adapting the books that defined my teenage years.
So why, you ask, did Disney release Artemis Fowl direct to streaming 20 years after the wildly successful novel came out? It may not shock you to learn that this movie has been in development hell for nearly 20 years, longer than some of you have been alive. For two decades, Artemis Fowl has cycled through a half dozen scripts, directors and production companies. It should be to no one’s surprise, therefore, that Artemis Fowl is simply unsalvageable as a film.
I read the first Artemis Fowl book once when I was eight years old, back in 2001, but it didn’t quite pique my interest enough to continue the series. I don’t remember it well, but nevertheless I was tentatively familiar with what the novel was about when beginning the movie. Movie adaptations absolutely can succeed without sticking to their source material (see: Lord of the Rings), but Artemis Fowl tosses out everything that made the book interesting in exchange for the most tired Hollywood tropes possible. I don’t want to spend this entire review talking about how “the book was better,” but I must emphasize to you that Artemis Fowl has undergone the worst case of “Disneyfication” in film history. I’m going to now describe to you the plots of two different, yet somehow the same, stories.
In the novel, the 12-year old titular super genius learns about a world of faeries and Celtic folklore that exists underneath our own, after discovering them posing as mystics in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Artemis lives with his mentally ill mother, while his father has been missing for years after an expedition to the Arctic. Artemis in turn kidnaps his own fairy, a cop named Holly, and holds her for ransom in his high-tech mansion aided by his butler, called Butler, and his sister, Juliet. The fairy police hold the house under siege and send a criminal dwarf named Mulch Diggums to infiltrate the house and rescue Holly, since they can’t enter houses without invitation. Eventually Artemis outsmarts the commander, Julius Root, and he forces the fairies to cure his mother’s madness.
In the movie, the story is framed by a kleptomaniac dwarf talking to the human police in black and white. Artemis is a smart but lonely kid, living in a mansion with his father in Ireland, and just doesn’t fit in with the other kids at school. He’s always been different, never feeling like he really belonged. His father told him stories about fairies and other myths growing up, and he never believed them – until his father gets kidnapped by a dark fairy named Opal. He receives a ransom notice – deliver the Aculos, a powerful relic, or lose his father forever. Holly, a fairy cop, comes to the surface to clear her father’s name for stealing the Aculos. Artemis tells Commander Root he’ll trade her for the Aculos so he can save his father. Mulch Diggums invades the house but becomes a trusted ally, and they work together with Holly to save the day. Holly declares that she and Artemis are now “forever friends”, they rescue his dad and the identity of the villain is never revealed. Artemis then looks directly into the camera and says “I am a criminal mastermind.”
Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) is the most overdone children’s movie protagonist archetype: super smart, good at sports, well-mannered, nice, but for some reason he just doesn’t fit in. This character is boring beyond description, and Shaw plays him with about the same gusto with which I’ve described him. Colin Ferrall, as Artemis Fowl Sr., does just fine in the seven minutes of screentime he is given. Holly (Lara McDonnell) gives a good-enough performance, but the character’s sudden Stockholm syndrome-friendship with Artemis receives no setup and therefore yields no reward at the end of the film. Nonso Anozie as the Butler gives what is easily the best performance in the movie; his dry wit and imposing form invoking Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy. Josh Gad portrays Mulch Diggums, the giant farting dwarf, whose costume can only be described as a “pretty good Hagrid cosplay.” The use of Mulch as a framing device makes the character instantly unlikable, putting his bad attitude and smugness at the forefront before viewers see the endearing side of him. Dame Judi Dench redefines “phoning it in” with her performance as Commander Root, and the supporting characters under her watch are resigned to making dumb jokes and funny faces in reaction shots.
Moving past the performances, the pacing of this movie was so erratic and jumpy it rivaled Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. None of the events in the film are given room to breathe before another thing starts happening, making the movie feel more like a series of jump cuts than a singular story. The second and third acts of the movie take place entirely inside Artemis’s mansion, so it would have been nice to spend the first act showing viewers how the mansion is laid out. Instead we have people running from one end of the multi-acre property to the other in seconds, throwing characters wherever they need to be at a given moment. One moment Holly is a hated prisoner and three minutes later she and Artemis are allies. One moment Juliet is Artemis’s only real friend, the next she inexplicably disappears for half an hour without comment. One moment Commander Root hates Holly, the next she risks her career for her. Artemis Fowl is a series of disparate scenes connected only by containing the same characters.
Artemis Fowl is a bad movie. The tone seems to just be “incomprehensible”, while the theme is “watch this kid do things”; if there is more to it than that, my meager brain was not able to grasp it. I do not believe this will appeal to children or adults. The characters are unlikable, the plot is convoluted, viewers are assaulted with inane gobbledygook fairy words that are never explained and anyone’s motivation at any time is a mind-boggling mystery. The villain turns out to be no one and makes no attempt to actually harm Artemis, instead doing the equivalent of shaking a fist at the sky and screaming “I’ll get you next time, G.I. Joe!”
The movie takes itself much too seriously to be funny and tries so hard to be fun that it just feels sad. Artemis is neither shown to be a criminal nor a mastermind in this movie at any time, yet the whole premise is built around that defining trait. “Show, don’t tell” would only do so much to salvage this movie. Relying on the most tired, lethargic plot devices in Hollywood, the film fails on an entirely new level for YA adaptations. This is a movie for no one.
My friend, who watched Artemis Fowl with me, recommended this movie only for “stupid ten year olds who think they’re smart.” I’m inclined to agree with her.