Adaptation of Eoin Colfer's novel has a fairy-punk esthetic that makes for a messy 90 minutes of world building
You could make a movie about the 20-year journey from page to screen of Artemis Fowl. Consider this: Had the cinematic version of the kids’ novel taken flight in 2001 as originally planned, critics would have complained that it was too similar in tone to the first Harry Potter movie, which was then hitting theatres.
Instead, the project languished in development hell for close to two decades, with COVID-19 delivering a last-minute blow that forced it out of cinemas and onto Disney’s streaming service.
The resulting movie is a touch uneven, with a lot of world building to cram into a little more than 90 minutes. The setting is modern-day Ireland, where boy millionaire Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) needs help from the fairy realm to rescue his dad (played by Colin Farrell, and also named Artemis Fowl) from the clutches of a nefarious villain.
Law is administered by the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance, or LEP-recon. They wear green, of course.
The film, and the source material from Irish author Eoin Colfer, imagines an underground society of trolls, elves, gnomes and what-have-you. Law is administered by the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance, whose acronym gives us the clever pun of LEP-recon. They wear green, of course.
The underworld is where we find the strongest casting. Judi Dench is clearly having a ball as Commander Root, barking “Get the four leaf clover out of here!” at her subordinates, and delivering the most threatening “Top o’ the mornin’ ” I’ve ever heard.
But the real revelation is Lara McDonnell as Holly Short, a captain in the LEP who is sent to incapacitate a rogue troll, and winds up ensnared by young Artemis, who needs her help. McDonnell, who played Matilda on the stage in London, is 16 but could pass for a few years on either side, an ambiguity of which the film takes advantage. “You’re 84,” the centuries-old Commander Root tells her chidingly. “You’re young.”
The aboveground folk are less notable, with Nonso Anozie playing Dom Butler, Artemis’s faithful (and dangerous) butler, and Tamara Smart as his daughter. Bridging the realms is Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums, world’s tallest Dwarf, a pickpocket wanted by police forces both human and fairy.
Alas, newcomer Shaw in the title role might be the film’s weakest link, a failing I’m going to chalk up not to the young actor but the screenplay, adapted by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl. It’s a devilishly tricky role to play – a child prodigy, overconfident to the point of arrogance, but also sympathetic as the main character. I’m not sure who could pull it off.
Fortunately, director Kenneth Branagh delivers a lot of magical whizbangery to distract from the characters. Case in point: As our heroes are holed up in the coastal mansion that is Fowl Manor, Commander Root gives the order to “Jam all magic in the house.” This is not as it may sound an incitement to a rave, but indicative of the tale’s fairy-punk esthetic, best described as Harry Potter meets Men in Black. (Gad’s character looks like Hagrid’s second cousin, while the LEP armaments resemble that other movie’s Series 4 De-Atomizers.)
It’s a messy, noisy film, clearly anxious for a sequel. And I’d be happy to see one; there’s so much potential in this one (and so many sequels penned by Colfer over the years) that if it settled down and took its time, Artemis Fowl could evolve into a really great franchise. Let’s just hope part two doesn’t take another 20 years.
Artemis Fowl is available June 12 on Disney+.
2.5 stars out of 5