Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Disney had one of its largest slates of big screen films ever scheduled for 2020. Marvel, Pixar and Disney Animation films were all on the list but one movie that stood out for a lot of the wrong reasons was “Artemis Fowl”. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who is no stranger to fantasy films having directed “Cinderella” and “Thor”, and based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Eoin Colfer, “Artemis Fowl” became the primary victim of COVID-19 in Disney’s lineup making the move to Disney+ while other features were simply rescheduled. Previously rescheduled from August of 2019 and suffering from several casting controversies “Artemis Fowl” looked to overshadow it’s rocky reputation and kick start a new fantasy franchise for the 2020s. Alas this poor attempt at franchise building feels right at home on a streaming service rather than the big screen thanks to a myriad of problems beyond its controversies that leave it dead on arrival.
“Artemis Fowl” stars Ferdia Shaw as the titular 12-year-old genius whose father, Artemis Fowl, Sr., played by Colin Farrell, is kidnapped and held hostage by a pixie named Koboi (Hong Chau) until the younger Fowl can retrieve a mysterious McGuffin known as the Aculos, the greatest treasure of the hidden fairy kingdom. Joined by fairy Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), dwarf Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) and the Fowl family’s faithful servant Dom Butler (Nonso Anozie) Fowl puts his crime-solving skills to the test to save his father and locate the Aculos. It’s a plot that I’m sure played out great in the books, but on the screen this story becomes even more complicated thanks to rushed pacing, lazy writing, and an uneven narrative structure. “Artemis Fowl” is a textbook example of doing too much with too little as it feels like the filmmakers wanted to rush through a jumbled introduction of potential franchise staples without taking the time to develop characters and worlds or even generate a coherent story.
Despite director Kenneth Branagh proving in past films he can blend CGI and practical set pieces properly and capture the spirit of preexisting source material with an inspired sense of imagination, “Artemis Fowl” accomplishes none of these things with some of the most poorly rendered CGI since the “Hellboy” reboot, lifeless characters, and taking little interest in truly exploring the endless possibilities of Colfer’s world of fantasy and science fiction. This movie feels like, and ultimately is, a classic case of trying to rush into a franchise without actually letting the movie itself be its own thing and then building off of that in later installments. The same mistake halted the Dark Universe with “The Mummy” and nearly killed the DC Extended Universe in “Batman v. Superman” but “Artemis Fowl” feels like the worst sinner yet in this growing list of franchise-starting flops as unlike those previous films which at least had SOMETHING worth experiencing, this movie is so muddled and incomplete that you don’t even have time to really enjoy what it DOES have to offer. Many people have crucified Disney for their failure to properly develop and handle the “Star Wars” franchise, but honestly their failures there look tame compared to this abomination.
A few notable things that stood out to me as positives are some choice performances, particularly from Lara McDonnell who feels like the only real standout of the fresh faces in the cast, Josh Gad who injects some much needed genuine humor into the film and Dame Judy Dench who is miles above this movie and shows it by investing in her character despite having little to work with. There are a few fun scenes and some neat camerawork that in a better film would have resulted in standout moments, but with this film they’re drowned out by the mediocrity surrounding them. Other than that “Artemis Fowl” doesn’t even feel like it’s trying. Among the biggest issues scattered throughout the film are the poor chemistry between the elder and younger Fowls thanks to Ferdia Shaw’s lifeless performance and Colin Farrell phoning it in (he recorded all of his scenes in a matter of days), and, to point out the elephant in the room, problematic casting doesn’t exactly help either as McDonnell’s role, presented as a darker skinned fairy in the books, was considered an example of whitewashing and Nanso Anozie, a black man who is a staple of Branagh’s films, playing a servant with the last name Butler when the character in the book was considered Euroasian. It’s a casting decision that feels in poor taste even out of context.
Speaking of the film’s forgettable villain, one of the biggest problems “Artemis Fowl” suffers from is that it feels disastrously incomplete and the big bad suffers as a result. The final product clocks in at a little over an hour and 35 minutes and feels edited to death to get to that point. It actually should have been much longer at least from a story perspective. Strangely enough most of the narrative features the good guys fighting each other while the villain remains masked the entire film despite the trailer featuring what could have been a reveal scene (shown in the screen shot above). In addition to lacking answers about the villain there’s no real final showdown to speak of either. Everything involving the pixie Koboi is resolved in mere minutes with the help of the McGuffin completely eliminating all the stakes the story had built up to that point. Even though the CGI, acting and writing would probably have made another 20 minutes or so hard to swallow, I feel it would have actually help with the pacing and given us a proper finale if we were given more story to sink our teeth into. At the very least that may have made this a salvageable attempt at something.
“Artemis Fowl” is a jumbled mess of bad creative decisions, poor execution, lifeless performances, and flawed franchise building packed into a thankfully short runtime. For the first time in years Disney feels like it truly dropped the ball on a potential franchise as even those who went in with soft expectations will find it hard to accept this as the final result for any film from the juggernaut studio. It’s truly odd to think that this was meant to be a summer film for Disney and yet it barely feels up to snuff with the most basic streaming and on demand releases. Few people, not the actors, the writers, the studio, or the director, look good coming out of this movie. With a little more patience, inspiration, a better writing team and likely a lot less studio interference “Artemis Fowl” could have indeed set the stage for the next great fantasy franchise. Instead it’s the latest, and possibly worst addition to a growing list of modern franchise kick starters that promise so much and offer far too little in return.