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Artemis Fowl Review

June 15, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Artemis Fowl Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios
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Artemis Fowl Review  

Directed By: Sir Kenneth Branagh
Written By: Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl; Based on the novel by Eoin Colfer
Runtime: 96 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor

Ferdia Shaw – Artemis Fowl, Jr.
Colin Farrell – Artemis Fowl, Sr.
Lara McDonnell – Holly Short
Nonso Anozie – Domovoi Butler
Tamara Smart – Juliet Butler
Josh Gad – Mulch Diggums
Dame Judi Dench – Commander Root
Hong Chau – Opal Koboi
Josh McGuire – Briar Cudgeon
Nikesh Patel – Foaly

When reflecting on the execrable cinematic, chaotic, catastrophic calamity that is Disney’s Artemis Fowl, another bland, big-screen blunder comes to mind. In 2007, screenwriters Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris put out their spec script to Hollywood buyers. That script was called Nottingham, and it was based on the Robin Hood legend. Robin Hood is a tale that’s been repeatedly done by Hollywood, so what was the catch that made Reiff and Voris’ script such a hot commodity that had studios chomping at the bit to buy it? This version of the story cast the role of Sheriff of Nottingham in the role of the protagonist. The character, normally portrayed as Robin Hood’s arch-nemesis, would be more heroic, with an idiosyncratic, Sherlock Holmes-esque flair. It was Nottingham who was the misunderstood hero this whole time, while Robin Hood was not quite the dashing, heroic outlaw depicted in history. Robin Hood had become sort of old hat in Tinseltown, but at least Reiff and Voris came up with an interesting twist and deconstruction to the legend that could have made the film infinitely more interesting than the most recent god-awful tripe that Lionsgate came up with, starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx and Ben Mendelsohn.

Nottingham was bought by Universal and Imagine Entertainment, and it looked like Reiff and Voris were in business. Enter filmmaker Ridley Scott, fresh off his latest hit in American Gangster. In fact, Scott had been a part of the bidding war beforehand to obtain the rights, and now he wanted to direct it. Except, for whatever reason, Scott didn’t want to direct Nottingham, and he thought Reiff and Voris’ concept, which was what made it such a desired commodity, “was fucking ridiculous…It was terrible, a page-one rewrite,” as he told The Sunday Times.

Scott came up with new ideas. Rewrites were done. What started as an inversion of the Robin Hood legend, with a heroic Sheriff of Nottingham and a more anti-heroic Robin Hood, later became the Sheriff and Robin Hood actually being the same person. That didn’t pan out. Ultimately, what started as a fresh, unique take on the myth was transmogrified into a conventional, traditional Robin Hood origin story. This is the same thing that’s been done dozens of times before, and repeated many times thereafter. What was supposed to be Nottingham with the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero became 2010’s lugubrious Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. The bloated $200 million production was a box office disappointment and similarly tanked with critics. There’s no guarantee that the Nottingham take would have been more successful, but at least it would have been something different from a rehash of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, which is exactly what Crowe and Scott delivered, failing to recreate the magic of the characters in Gladiator.

Now, all this rambling about Nottingham has a point. Here is the Artemis Fowl series by author Eoin Colfer. It’s a series of youth-oriented fantasy novels, where the protagonist is the eponymously named Artemis Fowl, Jr. The hook for Artemis Fowl is that the protagonist is the world’s most devious, cunning and brilliant criminal mastermind, who happens to be a 12-year-old boy. So, the hero of the story is not a hero at all. The hero is the villain; and throughout the book series, Artemis Fowl’s role evolves into more of an antihero. That whole premise, that whole concept, is the hook of Artemis Fowl. The entire reason someone wants to read about Artemis Fowl, or even possibly watch a movie about Artemis Fowl, is because this is about a kid super-villain. It is not the adventures of James Bond Jr. It’s the adventures of Blofeld Jr. And much like a Robin Hood story that had a hook with a heroic Nottingham as the protagonist, the very concept, the entire hook that made Artemis Fowl worth pursuing, did not work for filmmaker, Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh did not believe in the concept or premise of Artemis Fowl. Audiences can’t accept the idea of an amoral or villainous character who gradually becomes good or less bad over time. He told Slash Film: “It was a decision based on a sort of inverse take on what I saw in the books, which was Eoin introducing Artemis gathering a sense of morality across the books. He said that he had him perform as an 11-year-old Bond villain. It seemed to me that for the audiences who were not familiar with the books, this would be a hard, a hard kind of thing to accept.”

Sir Branagh lacked faith in the audience. That shows in his awful take on Artemis Fowl, which is now available exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service, completely eschewing what was originally planned to be a theatrical release. But more than lacking faith in the audience, Branagh lacked faith in the material he originally signed up for and wasn’t willing to commit to it. Rather than a kid villain picture, the film is a kid James Bond Jr. picture. Or rather, Artemis Fowl looks like Ferdia Shaw cosplaying as a kid James Bond or Man in Black in a bad Harry Potter-meets-Star Wars fantasy mashup you never, ever wanted to see.

As shown by the film’s infinitely grating narration by the Dwarfish-Giganticus [a dwarf that isn’t short], Mulch Diggums (Gad), Branagh doesn’t trust the young viewers to watch the story unfold. Instead, he holds the audience’s hand the entire way. Every major twist, every major development in Artemis Fowl is not just spoon-fed but force-fed to the audience, similar to a bad single-player Call of Duty campaign. Before the plot twist can even take place, Gad’s Diggums is there to tell the audience exactly what is about to happen every step of the way. There’s no sense of discovery, wonder, or glee to enjoy with Artemis as he makes his master plan unfold and come to life. Gad is always there to appear, not to recap or provide context, but to painstakingly reveal what is going to happen in the next scene.

Throughout the film, the viewer must listen to Josh Gad adopt a scratchy, deep Christian Bale Batman-esque growl that sounds awful. Imagine Hagrid’s ne’er-do-well cousin suddenly discovered Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy one weekend and thought Christian Bale’s annoying, Batman growl was the coolest thing ever. That’s what the audience is forced to endure through the entirety of Artemis Fowl because Sir Kenneth Branagh thought the novelty of Josh Gad imitating Christian Bale as Batman was a funny idea, and would be even funnier if he were made the narrator of a feature-length film. As if Gad’s growly Batman imitation wasn’t bad enough, the movie delivers it in stereo with poor Dame Judi Dench, fresh off her role as Old Deuteronomy in the wonderful romp that was Cats. My understanding is Dench’s character, Root, in the source material was a heavy chain-smoker, which would explain the deep, raspy, husky voice. Except, Root doesn’t smoke in the film, so her voice sounds like that…because…why?

As far as the movie force-feeding and telegraphing all the major twists, even the mysterious villain is not a mystery. The film starts by keeping the central antagonist shrouded. Their identity is a secret, and then minutes later, the movie spells out the identity of the villain. The movie almost sets it up in a way that the identity of this character is important and there is a reason to keep it a secret, except the script spoils this reveal early on.

The titular hero Artemis Fowl (Shaw) is a young childhood prodigy. His father, (Farrell), is a rare collector and dealer in antiquities, except he has been kidnapped and held ransom by an evil fairy. It appears all the mythical creatures of fable and legend that Artemis’ dad told him about are real, and they live in a high-tech, secret, underground and magical society. Artemis Sr.’s kidnapper wants a magical item called the Aculos in three days, or Artemis’ father will be killed.

The theft of the Aculos is the cause of great concern in the underground magical realm, especially for the society’s magical police force, the LEPRecon, led by Commander Root (Dench). Even though Artemis needs the Aculos to save his father from his kidnapper, he instead spends most of the movie in a kidnapping plot involving the young LEPRecon recruit with a chip on her shoulder, Holly Short (McDonnell). Even though the Aculos is what Artemis needs to rescue his father, he wastes most of the movie performing pointless, unnecessary efforts.

To even say Ferdia Shaw’s Artemis is performing anything is a stretch. Things happen, and Ferdia Shaw blandly speaks to transition from one scene to the next. He doesn’t appear to be the one who causes any of the actions or outcomes to occur at all. Things happen throughout the film, and he’s just sort of there reacting some of the time. Lara McDonnell’s Holly Short doesn’t fare much better either. Their major moments lack sincerity and believability. When Artemis Fowl finally has his major moment and calls himself a “criminal mastermind,” it’s laughable. It’s like everyone in this production lacked complete and total awareness of everything involved in this production. The criminal mastermind line appears to be one wasted, last-ditch effort in an attempt to appease fans of the books to show them they got this non-franchise starter back on the right track.

The issue with the Aculous is reminiscent of another regrettable film adaptation of a popular children’s book series, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. The act that sets off the chain of events nearly leading to all-out war is the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt. Yet the heroes of that film spend the entire movie doing everything except trying to find the Lightning thief or investigating who that thief is. The Aculos is a dumb McGuffin. The theft seems pretty important, but the audience never gets to see that theft happen. It is a very vague, lazy plot device.

Along for the ride are Artemis’ loyal butler, the aptly named Dom Butler (Anozie), and his niece Juliet Butler (Smart). Juliet, who was originally Butler’s little sister in the books, is nothing but window dressing in an already dull film. She is there and does nothing of note, but every so often adds in some additional trite dialogue or commentary. Much like the concept for Artemis Fowl, the film jettisons her character’s most interesting aspect: Juliet is an adrenaline junkie who wants to be a pro wrestler. The film sets up that she is a master of martial arts and has been trained by her uncle from a young age, but the film does nothing with this. At least the pro wrestling angle sounded fun and could have been an entertaining wrinkle to her character.

The dull acting aside, Artemis Fowl is not helped by quite possibly the most spastic, insane direction and editing that’s ever been seen for a $125 million studio tentpole. It is almost as if the editing room for this picture was hijacked by either Vince Russo or a group of wild mutant rabbit hybrids on a coke binge. There is a scene where LEPRecon’s technological expert, Foaly (Patel), is attempting to stabilize a type of time freeze dome over Fowl’s mansion. At about 43 minutes in, the picture suddenly goes raw and wonky in a way that didn’t look intentional. Basically, Artemis Fowl looks like Disney did not even bother finishing the movie’s post-production or editing process, and a rough cut was dumped on the Disney+ service.

During another sequence, there is a vague start to an action scene. It appears that Sir Branagh saw Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman films and dug that hyper-kinetic, sped-up style from that church sequence and attempts, something similar. It ends rather quickly. The editing in the film is so haphazard and herky-jerky; it seems to just zip through scenes quickly without ever really letting them settle. It is reminiscent of the awkward first act for The Rise of Skywalker.

One other so-called “finished product” that looks weirdly and remarkably unfinished was Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, with its bad CG explosion effects. The difference? The awful, unfinished-looking 1997 Mortal Kombat sequel cost $30 million versus $125 million for this picture.

So, what’s the point here? At the very least, Artemis Fowl seemed to start with an interesting concept, much like the Nottingham script. After the experienced Hollywood producers, award-winning filmmakers, etc. got hold of it, they decided that they knew better. They jettisoned everything about the version they signed up for that made them unique and shot them out of an airlock. The result is 2010’s dull, forgettable Robin Hood, or 2020’s regrettable, clumsy Artemis Fowl. Even an Academy Award winner does not always know better. Why strip away everything that made that script or book interesting to begin with?

The reality is that it was smart for Disney to have the foresight to put this movie on the streaming service. While the film is likely a wash anyway, at least Disney will not be forced to endure a costly theatrical distribution for the film. Case in point, you do not see theater owners complaining about this film going straight to streaming. The writing was on the wall for a long time: Artemis Fowl is a dud.

The final score: review Extremely Horrendous
The 411
This Artemis Fowl is neither criminal nor mastermind. He's just a kid who sort of reacts to things throughout this movie. What was a story about a kid villain criminal mastermind became a story about a boring kid who wears a Men in Black suit. The film gets one point because watching it from the comfort of home is preferable to having to pay to watch it full price at a movie theater. Artemis Fowl is a weird, rough-looking movie. It wants to be Harry Potter. While the early Harry Potter films were flawed, at least they had sincerity and were not constantly holding the audience's hand and constantly checking to make sure viewers understood what was happening. Generally, those films treated the audience, kids included, with respect. Artemis Fowl does not.