'Artemis Fowl' Review: An Astounding Failure As An Adaptation And As An Entertaining Movie

I've been burned before by big-budget Hollywood adaptations of a beloved childhood property. I still remember the time that I sat in the darkened theater for The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan's disastrous adaptation of the untouchably perfect Nickelodeon series. My deflating excitement slowly being replaced by an appalled disappointment is something that I never wanted to experience again. Unfortunately, I would with Kenneth Branagh's shiny and joyless adaptation of Artemis Fowl.

Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl was something of a revelation for young fantasy readers. The 2001 novel followed a 12-year-old child genius and criminal mastermind who set his sights on stealing one ton of fairy gold by kidnapping and ransoming an elf. But here was the kicker: Artemis was kind of an a**hole. Here was a fantasy hero who was cruel and calculating, and no hero at all, actually. In Artemis Fowl, the title character was actually the villain. Artemis was the one terrorizing the fairy people, the one who had to be overcome and outsmarted. Through a briskly placed, playfully written heist story, Colfer managed to make us root against and root for a 12-year-old genius who has no qualms about kidnapping others for his own nefarious purposes. It's not groundbreaking by any means, and I'm not going to pretend that Colfer's writing was the stuff of high literature, but for those of us just getting our feet wet in children's fantasy, Artemis Fowl was an inventive approach to the genre that felt like a cool, punk alternative to Harry Potter.

Branagh's Artemis Fowl is none of those things.

A bloodless and hackneyed children's adventure, Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl's script for Artemis Fowl reworks its title character into a typical fantasy hero whose destiny is thrust upon him. Though still a child genius and social outcast, Artemis Junior (newcomer Ferdia Shaw) is a happy Irish tween who enjoys a good relationship with his father Artemis Senior (Colin Farrell), a wealthy businessman who passes on a love of fairy lore down to his son. But when Artemis Senior disappears on a business trip and is outed by the media as a criminal mastermind, Artemis Junior's entire world is upended. Soon, Artemis receives a mysterious call from his father's kidnapper, demanding that Artemis retrieve a fairy artifact called the "Aculos" in exchange for his father's life. It turns out Artemis Senior had been in cahoots with the fairies for years, collecting artifacts of the fairy world in a hidden lair that Artemis' bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) shows to the young boy. Artemis quickly gets to work decoding Artemis Senior's trail of clues, which leads him to kidnap the elf Holly Short (fellow newcomer Lara McDonnell), a spunky LEPRecon officer hell bent on proving her father Beechwood Short's innocence in the disappearance of the same Aculos.

I could list all the ways that Artemis Fowl differs from the book — the sanding down of Artemis' edges, the invention of a MacGuffin in the form of the Aculos, the lazy connection between Artemis and Holly's fathers — but that could go on for ages. Though I do want to point out the troubling optics of recasting Butler, who is described in the books as vaguely Eurasian, as a black man: the character comes from long line of bodyguards also named Butler who have served the Fowl family for generations.

But even if Artemis Fowl completely misunderstands the appeal of the original books, the least it could do is be an entertaining movie, right? Unfortunately, Artemis Fowl opts to be a profoundly joyless exercise in generic children's fantasy tropes.

Bogged down by exposition and a nonsensical narrative, Artemis Fowl feels like it's cobbled together from YA fantasy buzzwords and a corporate boardroom's understanding of what the kids like these days. Adorable tykes playing with computers and laser tag weapons? Check. A badly computer-animated troll? Check. A hoarse-voiced Josh Gad painfully riffing for five minutes to a stony-faced Judi Dench? Check. There's no dramatic arc in Artemis Fowl — things just happen with no build-up, as characters over-explain concepts that have no bearing on the plot. For a story that centers on a heist, the plot is oddly contrived and complicated, with the film hastily trying to bring its two leads together in a lazily-written connection between their fathers that rivals the "Martha" revelation in Batman v. Superman. There is not one, but two climaxes, neither of which has any narrative weight to them except that Colin Farrell may die.

It's very clear that Farrell's Artemis Senior, as he operates in the story, was a last-minute addition to the film. In the book, Artemis is an absent father and a looming, intimidating figure to Artemis Junior whose disappearance kicks off the plot but who does not factor into the story otherwise. Here, Artemis Senior is a big, warm presence and the reason for Artemis Junior's interest and vast knowledge in the fairy world. That makes the introduction of threads like the mention of Artemis' unwell mother (who doesn't appear to exist at all in the film) and Artemis' initial disbelief that fairies are real — right after a lengthy flashback in which Artemis Senior quizzes him on fairy magic — feel like remnants of another movie. Not to mention the total absence Hong Chau's fairy, who was a major presence in the trailers but was cut out of the final film completely.

The ironic thing is that Farrell is the only one in the film with an ounce of charm (I'm sorry Dame Judi Dench, but I don't know what you were doing with that weird raspy delivery). In the brief scenes he appears in, he's charming to the point that you do care that he is kidnapped and that his son would go to these lengths to bring him back. I don't blame the filmmakers for wanting to use Farrell more — and with his real Irish accent — but it only makes the film's narrative more confused.

The rest of the performances are bad across the board. I can't fault newcomers Shaw and McDonnell too much; they perform to the best of their abilities as child actors, and McDonnell does show some potential as the rogueish, idealistic Holly Short. Poor Shaw, however, is too stiff and awkward for all the intense close-ups Branagh gives him and the intellectual Sherlockian dialogue he has to rattle off. He comes off as a precocious brat rather than a child genius, but it's more the fault of Mcpherson and McColl's wooden script, which possesses none of the silly cheekiness of Colfer's original dialogue. Anozie is meant to play a stoic, tough strongman as Butler — a fan-favorite of the books — but comes off a little doltish, and his ice-blue contacts don't give the actor much room to display a range of emotions. And don't get me started on Gad, who is given way too much to do in this film as Mulch Diggums, a character brought in during the second act and who becomes a key part of the action while serving as the narrator for the story. Mulch is another fan-favorite from the books, but Branagh gives Gad way too much space to play with his depiction of the character as a "giant dwarf" whose insecurity over his size becomes a recurring comedic beat.

All the fun has been sucked out of Artemis Fowl. Right off the bat, the stakes are too high because of the worldwide search for the "Aculos," and we're barely given time to enjoy the underground world of the fairies, which boasts a beautifully organic bioluminescent design — one of the few compelling parts of the film. Branagh and co. don't seem to understand that Colfer guides us into this fantasy world with a knowing wink — the underground capital of Haven City is a high-tech metropolis far more advanced than human society, yes, but it's also full of disgruntled DMV workers and a paranoid techie who wears a tinfoil hat (sorry to say, folks, Foaly is just another boring tech bro in the film). Branagh instead relies on Gad's weak improvised riffs and a few bizarrely timed broad comedic beats, which fail to make up for how un-fun this movie is.

I tried desperately to keep my expectations for an Artemis Fowl movie low. Just because a movie isn't a shot-for-shot adaptation of its source material doesn't mean it's inherently bad, I kept telling myself, as my hopes sank lower and lower through the film. But Artemis Fowl is not just a disappointing adaptation, it's a badly made movie. Its Frankensteined plot and its shockingly poor CGI — which could have passed in an early 2000s movie, but not in 2020 — leave it no redeeming qualities. It gives me no joy to say that yet another movie adaptation of a beloved childhood property has wasted Colin Farrell.

/Film Rating: 1 out of 10