First published in 2001, Eoin Colfer’s action-fantasy series of adventures centring around tweenage criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl (Jr) may at first glance appear to be little more than an attempt to cash-in on the then white-hot and unquestioned success of J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series but in reality the books hewed much closer to the world of Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy”, with a dash of “Men In Black” thrown in for good measure. Of course, you’d never be able to glean this from this misbegotten mishmash. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, what arrives on screen, limping to an ignominious debut on Disney+, is a compromised collision of elements from the first two novels, bowdlerised and sanitised by a butchering job in the edit suite and any hint of the creativity and magic of the source material redacted for fear of somehow alienating an audience who in the end will be more repulsed by this milquetoast adaptation than any of the supposedly subversive elements of having an actual criminal be the lead character.
When his father goes missing on a business trip, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) decides to take matters into his own hands, concocting a fiendish plan to coerce the forces of the fairy world, into helping him rescue his father.
There’s an early warning sign that all is not well with this movie as Josh Gad is pressed into service not only to anchor the story’s framing device but also to deliver a relentless, gravel-voiced narration as he attempts to paper over the many, many chops and cuts which have clearly been made to the original script. This becomes even more apparent when his narration all but disappears halfway through the movie despite the narrative being no less incoherent or arbitrary.
Gad, ironically, is actually pretty good as Mulch Diggums, the ‘giant dwarf’ whose talents for tunnelling and larceny make him a pivotal part of Artemis’ plan and the character is one of the few who makes it to the screen relatively unscathed, although I hope Gad had a special allowance for lozenges in his contract. Poor Nonso Anozie gets precious little to do as Butler, the Fowl’s faithful manservant and bodyguard and the less said about poor old Judy Dench’s turn as Commander Root the better. Actually no, wait. I will say two things: one, I hope she had the same lozenge clause as Josh Gad and two: whatever penance Dench had incurred from “Cats” has more than been atoned for by her having to appear in this. She looks thoroughly miserable throughout, spending every moment obviously regretting doing dear Ken a favour.
But its in its would-be lead characters that the film really fails to take off. Neither Lara McDonnell nor Ferdia Shaw makes any kind of impression as the two lead protagonists, Holly Short and Artemis Fowl. As up-and-coming Lower Elements Police office Holly Short, McDonnell fails to give the fairy any sense of agency, never mind magic and Ferdia Shaw, struggles to convince as a normal child let alone a criminal genius. The role of Artemis Fowl is thoroughly beyond him that everything else just sort of collapses into the sinkhole where his performance should be.
The underwhelming character work is set, like nuggets of corn in a turd, in a film so haphazardly plotted and ugly to look at that even fans of the book, steeped in the lore, will be hard-pushed to recognised all of the elements being thrown onto the screen. For a book series so notable for the ingenuity and intricacy of its world-building, it’s astonishing how perfunctory the effort is to bring that world to understandable life on screen. The dialogue is clunky and awkward and the action is appalling shot too. Given a story of the hidden world of fairies, goblins, trolls and dwarves, Brannagh offers precious little magic or wonder in bringing things to life and virtually no fun or excitement whatsoever. Lacking any kind of coherent villain or defined motivation, the film – like one of it’s poorly articulated ‘time freeze’ set pieces – manages to make its 93 minute run time feel like an eternity.