REVIEW: Artemis Fowl – Oof

Based on the popular book series of the same name, Artemis Fowl finally arrives to deliver the first high profile trainwreck of the decade, and a reminder of what a bad adaptation of a YA fantasy novel could look and feel like.

The beginning of every decade tends to kick off with a spectacular genre dud that sets the tone for the rest of the decade, a bar for which all other disasters will be judged in comparison. Battlefield Earth in 2000, The Last Airbender in 2010, and now in 2020 we have Artemis Fowl. A film so bad that it is almost like watching a morbid miracle unfold before your eyes.

It honestly feels like a relic from another time. Not a film that was trying (and failing) to launch a cinematic universe, but one that is trying and failing to set up a franchise to adapt other books. Like this is a film made in 2007, put in a vault that was dusted off and thrown onto a streaming service after all this time. A film that appears to only be made to cash in on a brand name, without understanding what made that name connect with audiences in the first place.

This film languished in development hell for years, having been optioned for a movie back in 2001 (when the first book was published). It has been in development so long that it was originally being developed by Miramax and then The Weinstein Company. Shortly before production Disney removed Harvey Weinstein from the production and severed its production deal with The Weinstein Company. It appears someone got fed up with being asked where the movie was and just rushed to film the closest thing resembling a script that could be called Artemis Fowl.

The plot, a loose adaptation of the books, features Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), a boy genius who discovers his father (Colin Farrell) has been kidnapped by fairy folk who are after an ancient magical artifact that they believe Artemis possesses. Artemis, with the help of his protector Domovoi “Dom” Butler (Nonso Azozie), large dwarf Mulch (Josh Gad), and a kidnapped fairy Holly (Lara McDonnell) goes to war with fairy world and attempts to save his father from a shadowy figure with a secret hidden agenda. Dame Judy Dench is also in this film as a fairy commanding officer, but honestly, after Cats this is an improvement for her.

If that sounds like an interesting premise for a film (which when you break it down is a hostage film with fairies or a fantasy-based Die Hard), well, it could have been. Yet the film decided to strip out the most interesting aspect of the title character – the fact that he is a villain – in favor of presenting a standard origin story.  One that doesn’t actually turn the character into the one from the books.  Because you never quite understand why he is a criminal mastermind, since he doesn’t actually do anything criminal or believe his father is one.

The film finally comes to theat… I mean streaming under the direction of Kenneth Branagh. Originally known for his Shakespearian adaptations, Branagh saw a career resurgence after helming Thor in 2011. It opened doors for him to do bigger films than one would have expected from the character actor in his early days. 2014 saw him try to relaunch the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan series with Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit, which turned out to be a critical and box office dud. Yet he bounced back a year later with the live-action reimagining of Disney’s Cinderella. His follow up film was the 2017 murder mystery Murder on the Orient Express, which was such a surprise box office success that it generated a sequel, Death on the Nile, which is due out later this year (hopefully). Branagh dipping his toes into big-budget filmmaking is obviously nothing new, and he has played in the Disney toybox before. Yet here everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. None of Branagh’s quiet voice seems to be present in this film, and what is on screen is a lifeless joyless mess that feels like a chore for everyone involved. How did this happen?

It appears the film underwent serious editing and reshoots to trim its length. Many shots and sequences in the original trailer (for the film’s August 2019 release date) are completely missing, as is the original tone that trailer sold, something more akin to the book. When the second trailer hit (a week before quarantine) it raised many red flags from fans of the books. It appeared to change a number of aspects to make it feel like a more traditional YA movie. The film features a strange framing device of Josh Gad’s character being interrogated that appears to have been added to help pieces together scenes after the film was edited down for time. A good portion of the beginning is twenty minutes of narration explaining (sometimes with a character looking directly to the camera) who everyone is, the back story, and other details. Instead of showing they point-blank tell you. The villain of the film is hidden in shadows and it appears they are waiting to do a reveal, yet they never do. I can’t prove this, but it appears that Colin Farrell’s character was added late in the film production, possibly during reshoots (explaining why nobody knew he was cast in the film till March of this year).

It has honestly been so long since the YA fantasy film was a thing in popular culture. After Harry Potter hit the big screen in 2001, every studio was grabbing up the rights to every book aimed at a young audience hoping to launch their own Harry Potter. Most of the attempts at franchise starters were moderate hits that failed to launch a franchise (Spiderwick Chronicles), series that did well on the first film but fizzled out in sequels (Narnia and Percy Jackson), or outright box office flops (City of Ember, Seeker: The Dark is Rising, Eragon). Since then the films have fallen out of style with superheroes becoming the big form of genre entertainment, and YA moving more towards smaller scale interpersonal films like The Hate U Give, Love Simon, and The Fault in Our Stars. You can see this in the fact that Divergent, which hit theaters in 2014, fizzled out so that the final installment never happened.

The ones that did spawn successful franchises (Twilight, Hunger Games, The Maze Runner) became hits for a number of reasons. Two possible factors include 1) just how different they were from Harry Potter, and 2) that the first films in these respective franchises were not concerned with setting up a series, but put the focus on the single story at hand that made audiences want to return for future installments. Artemis Fowl, whose book had such a unique premise (the main character is actually a villain, blend of sci-fi and fantasy) fails to take that memo and instead settles as a film that mistakes plot for a story, and exposition for motivation.

Two moments really stood out to me as to the film not working. The first was the audience’s first glimpse of the fairy world. This was supposed to be the moment that inspired awe in the audience at this vast technological/magical hybrid. Yet it felt empty and hollow, and the reason it did was that there was no character to react to it. They wanted this moment to be their Diagon Alley scene, but what it was missing was Harry’s awe at what he was seeing. The discovery of this whole new world. That is why Luke going into the cantina or Aquaman seeing Atlantis works, because the main character and audience experience the awe together. Here it was removed, with just an establishing shot through a city that has no connection to the audience.

The other moment was when Josh Gad’s character stretched out his jaw and mouth with CGI that looked like it was out of Son of the Mask and proceeded to eat the dirt to burrow underground, only for it to be expelled from his anus as a fart cloud. I was left thinking “what…no….this isn’t real…that really happened? Why? Why? Who thought this was a good idea?”

Artemis Fowl is a misfire in every sense of the word. It somehow moves way too quick through plot points but also drags at a snail’s pace. The best compliment is that it is a fascinatingly bad movie, one that leaves you thinking throughout and after just how this all happened and that you can’t believe what is unfolding. This is certainly not a good mark for Disney+’s track record for original films. The streaming service now appears to be where Disney dumps the movies that they don’t have faith in at the box office and come off as more expensive Disney Channel Original Movies.