For every “Twilight,” there is a “Divergent.” For every “Resident Evil,” there is a “Warcraft.” And for every “Harry Potter,” there are a number of movies just like “Artemis Fowl.” Disney’s adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s popular YA series has been mired in development hell for nearly two decades, first cycling through producers and directors, only to weather an association with Harvey Weinstein, face a series of delayed release dates, and finally end up on the Mouse House’s streaming service in the middle of a pandemic.
Fate has not been kind to “Artemis Fowl,” but then again, Kenneth Branagh’s film isn’t either. Starring newcomer Ferdia Shaw (who lacks both the charisma and skills to carry an entire feature film) as the eponymous Artemis, the film opens long after the events we’re about to see play out have ended, the first indication that everything that follows is going to be far more convoluted than necessary. While Artemis is billed as a whiz kid (“when he was 10, he cloned a goat and named it Bruce,” we’re told), his true defining characteristic is his affection for his rich father (Colin Farrell, who seemed to have made off with a single day of shooting) and the Irish fairy tales they both love.
In Colfer’s books, Artemis was initially something of a bad guy who learned how to be better by interacting with fairies — they’re real! — and growing up in the process. Branagh’s version is not at all interested in that kind of character-building, instead turning young Artemis into something of a background story in his own adventure. And good luck untangling that story which, at its most basic level, follows Artemis after he discovers that a) his dad is actually a criminal mastermind who has spent his entire life ripping off important artifacts to b) help out the underground fairy world, which is filled with a rich array of magical weirdos in the midst of some sort of revolt.
When his dad goes missing, Artemis and his pals, including his butler (Nonso Anozie, playing a character actually named Butler) and Butler’s whipsmart niece Juliet (Tamara Smart), must uncover the mystery of the acorn-shaped artifact at the center of the conflict. Split between Artemis and friends and a bizarre group of fairies in the center of the Earth (including Judi Dench, Lara McDonnell, and Nikesh Patel as a centaur named Foaly), the film jumps between characters and stories with little reason, making it impossible to thread together how any of this fits together.
Taking serious liberties from the first two books in the series — all the better to slim down a packed plot, one of the few good creative choices that went into the film’s making — Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl’s screenplay eventually thins down a convoluted story to near-nothingness. There’s a special kid, a magical world, a priceless artifact with great powers, a motley crew of unexpected pals, and a faceless villain, all the broad strokes of many fantastical kids stories. But it’s as if the pair forgot to fill in the actual details. What, exactly, does the artifact do? Who, exactly, is the meanie pulling all the strings? And, really, are we expected to believe that young Artemis, who seems like a nice kid and all, is some criminal genius smarter than 99 percent of the rest the world?
The film also struggles from an overbearing narration courtesy of Josh Gad, as a treasure-mad dwarf (dressed in what can only be described as “Hagrid cosplay”), who at least he seems to be having a great time — possibly because he’s the only one actually aware of what’s going on. (Why he’s telling this entire story to human authorities is another question that the film will never, ever answer.) Those scenes, while set inside a single room, are indicative of the chintziness of the film itself, with cheap effects to boot.
Branagh, a classically trained actor who moved into directing by way of Shakespearean dramas, has already proven his ability to fit inside studio-mandated, franchise-designed boxes with flair, from the humor of “Thor” to the confident juggling of a sprawling cast and story in “Murder on the Orient Express.” Hell, he even appeared in a Harry Potter film, though whatever lessons “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” might have taught him about how to build a YA adaptation with charm seem to have been lost to time.
There are occasional flashes of humor, including a baffling but very funny scene that sees Gad’s character listening to (and this is not some weird joke) the dulcet tones of Foreigner as he wiles away his time in prison. The different skills of each fairy and the organization of their underground society also appeared to have captivated Branagh’s attention, but even those elements can only go so far in a film that has minimal time to enjoy its environments. Gad gets away with some further scene-stealing by way of one of the few scenes showing off the intricacies of fairy life, in which his skills involving tunneling sees a massive burst of dirt shooting out of his ass, the only crowd-pleasing scene in the film.
And that, perhaps, is the easiest way to explain its overarching failure: In a film built on a bestselling eight-book series, filled with all manner of magical beings (including Colin Farrell), and rich in fairy tale history, the best scene is one in which its grating narrator farts on a passerby. You didn’t see that in the “Harry Potter” films, and for good reason.
“Artemis Fowl” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting on Friday, June 12.