REVIEW – ‘Artemis Fowl’ is an incomprehensible disaster

After being stuck in production hell for almost two decades, Disney’s big-budget adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s acclaimed 2001 children’s book Artemis Fowl has finally arrived. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of the film’s intended April theatrical release, Artemis Fowl has instead been unceremoniously dumped on the studio’s streaming platform, Disney+. Frankly, that’s probably for the best.

An incoherent and confusing mess that rarely stops to take a breath, Artemis Fowl was clearly planned to be the first instalment of Disney’s next great saga to join their ever-expanding line of tentpole franchises. By the end of this film, there will be few clamouring for another chapter. Beset by a pace and a plot that’s genuinely difficult to follow and a screenplay drowning in endless exposition, Artemis Fowl is an incomprehensible disaster that will escape the title of box office flop by fortunate virtue of debuting on a streaming service.

Set on the coast of Ireland, Artemis Fowl begins with a media scrum descending on Fowl Manor, home to affluent antiquities dealer Artemis Fowl (Colin Farrell), who is believed to be responsible for the theft of a cavalcade of priceless ancient relics. After being arrested at the manor, Fowl’s faithful employee Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) is interrogated by British intelligence, who informs them the one they should have their eye on is actually Fowl’s son, Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw).

Flashback to three days earlier, we meet Artemis Jr., a 12-year-old introvert whose only joy in life comes from spending time with his beloved father, who has regaled his son for years with Irish fairy tales of goblins, fairies, and dwarves. After Artemis Sr. disappears on one of his numerous “business trips” and Artemis Jr. learns of the media’s accusations against his father, he receives a ransom call from the evil pixie Opal Koboi (an uncredited Hong Chau), who reveals Artemis Sr’s fairy tales were all in fact true and he has stolen the Aculos, one of the most powerful weapons in Haven City, the underground home of a secret civilisation of mythical creatures.

After Opal gives Artemis Jr. three days to locate the Aculos and exchange it for his father’s life, Artemis Sr.’s personal bodyguard Domovoi “Dom” Butler (Nonso Anozie) unlocks his boss’ secret library where generations of Fowls have catalogued the existence of the creatures of Haven City. Meanwhile, Commander Julius Root (Judi Dench, sounding like she has spent several decades smoking eight packs of cigarettes a day) of Haven City’s Lower Elements Police has despatched reconnaissance officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) to uncover the Aculos before it falls into the wrong hands.

From here, there’s a whole lot more plot to uncover, but it’s all so haphazardly handled, it’s difficult to recall how and why this all leads to an epic showdown between Artemis Jr. and Root’s seemingly endless army of fairy soldiers. For some reason, Holly winds up locked up within Fowl Manor, and Artemis Jr. demands Julius hand over the Aculos in exchange for Holly’s release, despite the fact the commander is attempting to locate the Aculos herself. At this point, I give up attempting to write this film’s plot summary and suggest you just watch it yourself to work it all out.

Moving at a breakneck pace that’s unconscionably speedy, Artemis Fowl appears to show little regard for anyone unfamiliar with Colfer’s original novels. With the barest of introductions to the main characters, we’re immediately launched into a convoluted plot that left me genuinely baffled as to what the hell was going on. The dialogue is spat out with such furious speed, you truly may need to rewind several scenes to understand what these characters are bumblingly attempting to convey. There’s a tremendous load of exposition to get through here, and it’s offered in such a chaotic fashion.

At a brisk 94 minutes (which somehow still feels uncomfortably long), Artemis Fowl simply refuses to allow anything to organically develop, especially its characters, who all leave the barest of impressions. Whether lead or supporting, the characters are all so thinly-drawn, making it genuinely difficult to summon an ounce of concern for their place within the larger narrative. If you’re attempting to build a franchise, we need to know who the hell these characters are first, much less actually grow to like them.

In another bizarre career move after her appearance in the unmitigated disaster that was Cats, Dench takes a paycheque role that will hopefully pay for a nice summer home somewhere. With a muddled Irish accent and a gravelled voice that would make Harvey Fierstein jealous, Dench grumbles through her stiff performance that mostly exists to provide clarification for the film’s nonsensical plot. Much like Cats, it’s rather admirable she managed to keep a straight face throughout the entire production.

Gad tries his utmost to elevate the film with some well-intentioned humour, but even he can’t save this one. With painfully silly jokes like a dry jab at human kind’s avoidance of glutton and a lame attempt at a Guardians of the Galaxy-style Walkman gag, Gad is better than this, and you get the feeling he knows it. At one point, his character is forced to unlock his jaw, chew a hole through the ground, and expel a stream of dirt out his behind. It was at this point I truly wondered what on earth I was watching. Of course, this is taken directly from the book, but what works on paper makes for a ghastly sight on screen.

Young actors Shaw and McDonnell are both perfectly fine in roles that fit them quite well. Unfortunately, Artemis Jr. often plays like a conceited know-it-all, which is an issue when he’s the titular character we’re apparently meant to be cheering for. It’s not entirely Shaw’s fault, who’s clearly just playing the role as it’s written, but it does make for frustrating viewing to be stuck with an arrogant tween for the entirety of the film. Holly is a far more empathetic character, with a sorrowful backstory related to the damaged legacy of her heroic father. In all honesty, the film would be far more effective and engaging from her perspective.

The film’s one saving grace pertains to its production elements, which is clearly where the bulk of the $125 million budget was spent. The sweeping cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos captures the majestic beauty of the Irish coastline (which is referred to as “the most magical place on Earth”) and the lavish production design of Jim Clay offers numerous beautiful sets for the actors to stumble around within. The same can’t be said for the film’s CGI work, which is sketchy at best and downright awful in several key scenes.

Despite its misguided sequel-bait ending, it’s clear Disney would like to just move on from Artemis Fowl and pretend it never happened. And that will be relatively easy for anyone unfortunate to view this illogical misfire. There was clearly magic in Colfer’s original beloved novel, but it’s been vanquished into oblivion with this messy and forgettable adaptation.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Joshua McGuire, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench, Nikesh Patel
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund
Screenplay: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production Design: Jim Clay
Costume Design: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Music: Patrick Doyle

Editing: Matthew Tucker
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: 12th June 2020 (Australia)

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