Lacking in vivid characters, compelling stakes or memorable set pieces, Walt Disney
So THAT’s why Artemis Fowl went to Disney+. The Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s novel was supposed to open in theaters, first on August 9, 2019 and then May 29, 2020. But that second theatrical release was canceled due to coronavirus-related theater closures, and the $125 million fantasy is now the first big-budget Disney flick to debut on the studio’s streaming platform. While the notion of Artemis Fowl becoming a theatrical hit was always a longshot, its sheer lack of quality almost qualifies as a mitzvah to movie theaters. The truncated (94 minutes, with lots of credit cookies) and indifferent fantasy flick brings to mind the very worst (the first Percy Jackson movie, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, etc.) of the post-Harry Potter wave of failed YA franchises.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was directed by Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two Harry Potter films. The 2010 flick played like a checklist of everything that could have gone wrong with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone but didn’t. Kenneth Branagh helmed one of the very best recent “Disney live-action remake” flicks, Cinderella as well as Paramount
I don’t know what did or didn’t happen before, during and after production. The end result is a lifeless and personality-free fantasy adventure that plays out sans much (beyond Irish locales and accents) to justify its existence. While the book’s big hook was that its title character was a self-styled criminal mastermind, the movie only offers generic “my dad had a secret life and was a good guy protecting the planet from otherworldly threats” nonsense. Colin Farrell shows up as Artemis’ kidnapped dad, and I will spoil that he does not turn into Johnny Depp at the end. We spend very little time in an otherworldly setting. Heck, the vast majority of the movie takes place at the Fowl manor, as if it were a big-budget Blumhouse version of a YA fantasy franchise-starter.
The film, colorful and handsomely staged throughout, is narrated via black-and-white framing device by Josh Gad’s scheming dwarf (now an informant for the Lower Elements Police or LEPrecon). The notion of fairies and related fairy tale creatures living just outside out worldview may have been unique in 2001. Still, much of the film plays out like two-decade-old leftovers from a time when the mere notion of CGI-infused fantasy worlds and esteemed actors (like Judi Dench, in a battle against her superiors that plays out not unlike Skyfall and Spectre) hanging out in a movie like Artemis Fowl would be unique unto itself. Like the recent Disney+ original Star Girl (a much better film), Artemis Fowl is an adaptation of a 20-year-old novel that doesn’t realize how out of date it is.
This would all be less of an issue if the movie itself were entertaining, exciting and featured compelling and eclectic characters. Artemis Fowl speeds so quickly to get to the protracted action climax that our heroes become mere types and tropes. Fowl is the young man who discovers his father’s secret life but would rather just have more family bonding. Without the “supervillain wannabe” gimmick, he’s an empty vessel. Holly Short (Lara McDonnell, doing the best with what she’s given) is a “feisty” fairy stuck being a potential romantic interest in a movie that’s got no time for love. Gad and Dench are having fun, even if Dench may need to take a break from big-budget fantasies after this, Cats and The Chronicles of Riddick. Nonzo Anozie is the loyal butler and, uh, that’s it.
We don’t even get a real villain as the “scary voice on the phone” remains as such. Beyond fidelity to the source material or relevance to the time in which it is released, Artemis Fowl fails on a fundamental level of “Is this movie fun?” and “Do I want to spend any more time with these characters?” Like The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, it impressively fails to tie up a single narrative strand, leaving everything of substance for the theoretical sequel. The Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight franchises all could have ended with their respective first entries and still qualified as a complete character drama. Like too many copycats, Artemis Fowl prioritizes worldbuilding and sequel set-up to compelling characters and in-the-moment entertainment. To quote the best Disney+ movie thus far, “mistakes were made.”
I’ve been critical of Walt Disney’s attempts to create new live-action franchises outside of the MCU and their animated library, as National Treasure was 15.5 years ago. Nonetheless, say what you will about Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland and Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, but they had distinct personalities, specific points-of-view and unique sensibilities. Warts and all, they justified themselves alongside the likes of Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. I’m not huge on Thor (many of the best character beats ended up on the deleted scenes reel), but it’s unquestionably a Kenneth Branagh movie and it laid the blueprint for the MCU as much as Iron Man. Artemis Fowl is as impersonal and soulless as, yes, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Even under the best circumstances, an IP like Artemis Fowl translating into a blockbuster release would be a long shot. That is why Disney has mostly stopped taking swings of this nature in favor of a steady diet of Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Walt Disney Animation and those live-action remakes. But even so, Artemis Fowl could have signaled that the films arriving on Disney+ could be as big and, relatively speaking, as good as their theatrical fare. But Artemis Fowl is instead the Disney equivalent of the various Paramount movies that ended up on Netflix