‘Artemis Fowl’ Review: A Soulless Culmination of Poorly Adapted YA Fantasy Books

Artemis Fowl pinpoints everything that made the source material so charismatic and sandpapers it down.

2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

In many young adult fantasy series, (typically male) protagonists fall into a certain type of personality: vaguely heroic, noble, normal, kind of a dork, and a newcomer to the fantasy world. There is nothing inherently wrong with this trope. It’s a tool to help the average reader see themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. Rarely is there a protagonist whose personality bleeds through the pages; where they are the hook instead of the world-building. Artemis Fowl II, the titular character of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s popular YA series that started in 2001, is one such protagonist. 

In the eyes of the kid reader, Artemis was cool. He was cunning. He was a thief, often because of greed and sometimes for personal glory. He was theatric. He was kind of a bastard. In the first few pages of his introduction, he poisons a weak fairy in exchange for information (but also provides an antidote that restores her health and magic). He was, to be short, a criminal mastermind. That was the hook of the Artemis Fowl series: a sort of pre-teen Lex Luthor

A Disney film of the same name that was released exclusively on its streaming platform this month, directed by Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh turned big-budget movie director, somehow manages to pinpoint every single quality that made Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series so charismatic and just sandpapers it down. 

It is well-known that an Artemis Fowl movie has been in the works for a long time. Advertisements for the film have been floating in and out of circulation for over ten years. (Somewhere in an old Disney magazine there exists a poster of a young Freddie Highmore or Asa Butterfield announced to be playing Artemis. Somewhere.) Yet, after years of anticipation and excitement from fans, there was no love put into this movie. It is flat and paper-like: the audience definitely sees people move their mouths and say words and go through the motions, but there is nothing beneath the surface.

The film begins with our twelve-year-old child genius (played by Ferdia Shaw in his first film debut), heir to an old-money family, discovering that his beloved father (Colin Ferrel) has been mysteriously kidnapped by a shadowy, unknown villain. Since the Fowls have a deep admiration for fairytales derived from Irish mythology, Artemis wields his belief in magic and sets out to bring his father back. 

The plan? To kidnap a fairy in exchange for gold to fund the search for his father and return the Fowl empire to its former glory. (Nathan Fielder voice necessary.) 

If that made no sense, it’s because the plot from the book does not translate well into the movie in any way, especially with all of the book elements Branagh and screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl stripped away in the final cut. 

Artemis’ kidnapping victim is Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), the series’ deuteragonist and a young officer in the fairy world’s (militarized) police force. Colfer’s twist on traditional Irish mythology is a blend of the spy genre with the mythology genre, taking delight in fancy, Bond-like technology. (In a way, Holly is the agent and Artemis is her villain.) Artemis kidnaps her, ransoming the fairy police force for gold and leading to the world’s first cross-civilization war between humans and fairies. 

In the novel, Artemis’ goals are way more devious. Holly regards him with total vitriol and he is condescending in return. His father, who is completely out of the picture, is a motivation but he also has a need for the diminishing, criminal Fowl name to be revered again. A line from the first book perfectly sums up Artemis’ mindset: “He still retained a childish belief in magic, tempered by an adult determination to exploit it.” The movie completely waters this down. Artemis’ intentions are noble and understandable throughout the film while Holly jumps to his side at the first chance. There is no tension. This Artemis is just a good kid. The film harps on about how intelligent Artemis is while he rides a hoverboard home from school and surfs (?!). 

In adaptations of novels, changes to the plot are not only expected, but they are absolutely necessary to suit the language of movies. The handwringing over small details isn’t fair to the format of movies and plot elements are bound to be cut for time. However, summarizing context from the books is necessary here because it makes no sense otherwise. The film’s choices outright cast aside some of the character’s most essential traits which could earn visceral reactions from the most forgiving fan entering the (metaphorical) theater. (And there are some upsetting choices too: Holly Short is described as having “nut-brown skin” and is cast otherwise.)

The crux of Holly’s arc was that she was the only female officer of the series and was forced to fight against the realistically sexist society Colfer pinned against her. She was also much older than Artemis. However, the film does away with these aspects of her arc by casting her commander as Judi Dench, who dons a glottal voice and acting choices more boring than her time in Cats. Holly’s outcast status is revamped with a completely new “traitor-dead-dad plot,” becoming a way for her to connect with Artemis.

The concept of mothers seems foreign in this film. One of the books’ most grim scenes was Artemis’ mother’s mental health deteriorating before the eyes of her twelve-year-old son, leaving him essentially without both of his parents. Artemis’ flashes of vulnerability stem from his mother’s breakdown and his resulting grief. It was one of the few signs that there was more to this kid genius than the narration let on; there are feelings of loneliness and love that he needs to grapple with. Artemis’ mother is dead in the movie.

Sidestepping the child actors (because it’s starting to feel mean at this point and that’s not something to partake in), the rest of the cast is unfortunately underdeveloped. Butler (Nonso Anozie), Artemis’ bodyguard and the only person resembling a father figure in his life, barely gets enough screen time to build one of the series’ most touching relationships. In a similar vein, the series’ most endearing character, Butler’s little sister, Juliet Butler (Tamara Smart), is an afterthought. 

Josh Gad as the kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch gets a lot of screen time in the film as a swaggering “Starlord in the way of Hagrid” who the fairies turn to when Artemis becomes a threat. He is inexplicably the narrator, slyly speaking to the camera, and while his arc and his attachment to the Fowls doesn’t make much sense and it disregards “show, don’t tell,” he was kind of fun to watch. He was going for it. Mulch also has the best moment in the movie. In this universe, dwarves possess the ability to unhinge their jaw like something from a nightmare and dig into the ground, which is what he does to break into Fowl Manor. He can also break into locks using his nose hair. It’s weird and exactly the type of nonsense energy the film needed the entire time. 

Artemis Fowl cost $125 million and yet, everything feels tacky. The CGI looks cheap. Uniforms look plastic. No one looks good. There is no world-building or wonder in the fairy world. The dialogue gets bonkers at times. Camera shots during action scenes flip, turn, and swoop at random intervals, jarring and disorienting the audience, and are over in a blink. The flashy action got in the way of the plot, making it hard to understand exactly what was happening. The aspects of the film unrelated to the plot are poorly executed, making it hard to believe that this would be a pleasurable watch even for audiences unfamiliar with the book series. 

However, the climax does have some fun with the concept of a Time Warp, where fairy agents get sucked into a whirlwind through body contortions. Other positive notes: Colin Ferrel is very handsome.  

For objectivity’s sake, these books aren’t perfect. There was no grand mission in the series that ties the books together and there were a lot of dead ends. The journey was mostly about watching Artemis grow into something of a hero on his own merits. He still retained a sharp, calculating personality, but he was someone more open to connecting with the people around him, largely due to his friendship with Holly (and to an extent, his exposure to the greater fairy world). Colfer is a good writer, handling the iconic Hitcherhikers Guide to the Galaxy after Douglas Adams’s death, and it was clear in the series that he had fun creating elaborate schemes to demonstrate the protagonist’s cleverness.

YA fantasy books have a special home in so many people’s hearts because they were some of the first long-form fiction people have read. That’s why fan reactions are so strong. Why approach the material so cynically? Even Disney at its worst can conjure some kind of emotion. Why is the film so humorless? The first fans of this series are old enough to be in the industry—there must have been someone out there who cared enough to see this movie done right. 

Artemis Fowl is the culmination of all of the 2000s YA adaptations, surpassing some of the biggest hits in how bad it truly is. It’s cheaper than Alex Rider (2006). Losing more of its thrills than The Golden Compass (2007). Emptier than Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2010). And, unlike those examples, it hurts to say that our criminal mastermind may not get a second chance on the big screen.

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