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Having not read Eoin Colfer’s fantasy novels on which Artemis Fowl is based, I can only comment on what is shown. It doesn’t compel me to dive deeper into the books. Perhaps Artemis Fowl plays better on the page. Stories very often do. But Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Colfer’s bestselling series feels like Spy Kids mashed with Fantastic Beasts, and a dash of 007 thrown in for the suspense factor. The mythology’s too dense for young ones, and the execution’s too simplistic for advanced audiences. It’s a surprising misfire by Sir Kenneth Branagh, one which I’m chalking up to the director of Hamlet, Henry V and multiple Agatha Christie adaptations being the wrong fit for this material.
The world of Artemis Fowl is strangely generic.
That’s an odd criticism to level at a story that takes place both in our world, and in Haven City, a realm occupied by all manner of fairies. But despite all the reveals waiting in Artemis Fowl, it all feels familiar, as if the ground has been covered before, a number of times.
Artemis Fowl starts off with real intrigue. Fowl (Colin Farrell) is an antiquities collector and reported thief whose global adventures have inspired all sorts of conspiracy theories. As the movie begins, the man has gone missing, leaving his son, also named Artemis (Ferdia Shaw), to piece together clues and discover his missing father’s whereabouts.
This isn’t an issue for young Artemis. He’s a 12-year-old genius, blessed with the cunning and confidence of Sherlock Holmes. Paired with a sidekick in Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie), Artemis begins to investigate his dad’s research into an artifact known as the Aculos, which crosses his paths with the fairies, trolls and dwarves of the mystical realms.
That’s already a lot to process, and Artemis Fowl doesn’t stop there. Halfway through this 95-minute sprint, the screenplay continues to introduce new characters and unlock new realms. You’ll need a scorecard to keep it all straight, and an instruction manual to explain why you should bother to care. Artemis Fowl repeatedly loses its plot, letting down some vibrant effects work. A simpler approach to the material might have been preferred.
The newcomers shine, but the seasoned veterans are wasted.
The two young leads almost make Artemis Fowl enjoyable. “Boy genius” can be a difficult tone to nail without coming off as pretentious, and Shaw finds intelligence, instincts and humor in young Artemis. He’s matched by Lara McDonald, who plays Holly Short, an 80-year-old elf who’s part of the Lower Elements Police. She essentially talks her way onto the Fowl case… or, maybe, she’s assigned to investigate a troll who interrupts an Italian wedding. That’s never really clear. Anyway, Holly eventually ends up captured by Artemis and caged Fowl Manor, and… nevermind, really. It doesn’t go anywhere.
Sometimes it’s amusing when polished screen actors take side roles in family-friendly fantasy, but here, the pedigreed cast is either wasted or humiliated. Farrell gets introduced as the mysterious collector Artemis Fowl, and then kidnapped (so he’s mostly off screen). Josh Gad works overtime as the movie’s narrator, the smarmy dwarf Mulch Diggums. Wait until you see how he tunnels through dirt.
Then there’s Dame Judi Dench, lowering her voice to a menacing growl and wearing silly practical costuming to play Commander Julius Root, commander of Holly’s beloved LEP. The 85-year-old Oscar winner is above this material, and she doesn’t even appear to be having fun with the role. Perhaps her grandchildren love the books? They should just read them again, instead.
I don’t love kicking Artemis Fowl. There’s like a huge fandom for the books who has been anticipating this adaptation, so they can see characters they enjoy brought to life. But as a newbie to the universe, I found Branagh’s take to lack the whimsy and spirit that typically infuses this genre with wonderment. It’s meant to launch a franchise, but they’ll need a different approach if they are indeed planning on moving forward with future adaptations of Colfer’s popular stories.