'Artemis Fowl' Is an Impressively Terrible YA Adaptation

Wondering why this hopeful franchise starter was dumped onto Disney+? Wonder no more.

Artemis Fowl

There are millions of decisions and choices that go into the planning, production, and post-production of a feature film, particularly one from a major studio and budgeted at over $125 million. Some day we’ll get an oral history as to the choices made behind Disney’s Artemis Fowl, but for now we’re stuck with an absolute, top to bottom, laughably bad misfire of a film with lifeless characters, nonsensical action, uninteresting story beats, and an unwillingness to wrap up a single narrative thread.

Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) is a spoiled pre-teen whose personality consists entirely of ego, and when his billionaire father goes missing — and is accused of being an international villain — the boy taps his Black butler named Butler (Nonso Anozie) for help in solving the mystery and rescuing dad. (I mention the man’s race as he’s the only non-White in a major role, and he’s cast as the mysterious servant? Come on Disney.) It seems Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) is well aware of the existence of otherworldly creatures and beings, knowledge he’s passed to a degree on to his obnoxious son, and those beliefs are confirmed when a “young” fairy named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) comes crashing into the human world trying to deal with her own unresolved daddy issues.

Soon the entire fairy army is on the Fowl doorstep, and if you’re still caring about anything happening in Artemis Fowl by this point you have a much higher tolerance for muddled mediocrity than most. Director Kenneth Branagh, a filmmaker capable of delivering great entertainment — Dead Again (1991), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Murder on the Orient Express (2018) — is in full-on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) mode here with a mess of a movie that can’t lock down the most basic of viewer expectations. It’s simultaneously busy and dull, colorful and flat, and it’s ultimately nothing more than a poorly rendered setup with zero payoff.

The script by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, adapted from Eoin Colfer‘s bestselling novel, feels scattershot and uninterested in offering context, character beats, or anything remotely like a conclusion. At ninety minutes (pre-credits) the film quite possibly is the result of some major trims, meaning Branagh and the suits at Disney are more likely to blame for its hopelessly incomplete feeling, but even the beats that reached the screen are a combination of underwhelming and head-scratching.

The core concept, at least as advertised, suggests the adventures of a child thief in training set against a world of fantasy and wonder, but young Artemis starts and ends the film as an annoying know-it-all who literally struts around like king shit. Worse, he does nearly the entirety of it from home. While some of the movie is set beneath the earth’s crust where the fairies live — a high-tech, inexplicably militant community that looks like hell — the overwhelming majority of it unfolds in and around the Fowl’s cliff-side estate. While a YA fantasy should feel big and grow bigger, this choice leaves the movie feeling far smaller than it should.

Shaw isn’t given much to work with and delivers even less, and that leaves the supporting players to pick up a lot of the slack. It’s ultimately Anozie and McDonnell who shine brightest despite the film’s limitations, but the energy and personality they inject is too often stifled by nonsense set-pieces, abrupt character jumps, or Judi Dench giving a straight-faced line reading of “Top of the morning to ya” while scowling in her green leather fetish-wear. Last year’s Cats (2019) debacle has probably toughened her skin some, but this role is every bit as cringe-worthy. Josh Gad is fine as a mischievous, giant dwarf — don’t ask — but the character, who narrates the film while in custody at the least secure ocean-set prison ever, spends half his dialogue praising young Artemis which automatically makes him suspect.

It’s not spoiling anything — or maybe it is, I don’t care at this point — to say that our “heroes” never even come face to face with the unidentified villain. The entire film is instead a buildup to a big battle between allies who could have settled things beforehand with a simple conversation. Nothing in Artemis Fowl means a damn thing because it’s never interested in telling a story or delivering compelling characters and instead wants only to set up sequels or maybe a theme park ride. To put it in bird terms, Artemis Fowl never flies but it sure does leave a lot of shit behind.

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