Adapted by Kenneth Branagh From the Popular Book and Starring Josh Gad and Judi Dench, Fowl is Anything but Top o’ the Mornin’.
DIRECTED BY KENNETH BRANAGH/2020
When it was announced several months ago that director Kenneth Branagh’s long-delayed adaptation of a certain kid-lit hit would not be waiting for the eventual reopening of movie theaters, and would instead premier on the Disney+ streaming platform, some fans cried “Murder most Fowl!” Being specially selected to be downgraded to streaming is a bad look, no matter how dire the pandemic outlook might be. But now that the long-awaited Artemis Fowl (based on the first of eight books in its series by Eoin Colfer) has dropped, the world finally has the chance to judge for itself. Has the magic behind this pint-sized criminal mastermind translated?
With a bombardment of VFX Irish fairies and trolls and leprechauns and banshees and centaurs and their hidden kingdom (it’s all real, Artemis!) and whatever else is in this, Artemis Fowl is almost more info-dump than movie. Every moment of the first third of the story, and well beyond, is devoted to set-up of too many characters, explanation of too much mythology, exploration of too much magic-as-technology gobbledygook, and simply too much clutter of what the heck is what.
Amid headache-inducing digitally-rendered visuals, we meet the title character, Artemis Fowl, Jr. (Ferdia Shaw), whose loving father (Colin Farrell, cashing a check) is captured early on by some sort of evil hooded mystical non-entity. It seems that Artemis Sr. had stolen a tremendously important magical artifact that the captor simply must have. Artemis Jr. has only a few days to bone up his knowledge of the hidden reality of magic (wherein it takes entire crews of fairies and elves in control rooms orchestrating NASA-like efforts to cast a spell), and learn the ways of his master-criminal father. It’s a lot for a ninety-five-minute movie to cover, particularly when a solid third of that running time has to be devoted to the eventual showdowns and rescue attempt. It’s too much, in fact. Confusion and exhaustion are the biggest takeaways from Artemis Fowl.
Once upon a time, this was intended to be a big fat blockbuster tentpole, and the launch of an inevitable film franchise. Hence, the presence of major talents such as Dame Judi Dench as the leader of the faerieland. With her gravelly voice and trademark steely scowl, Dench is given a surprising amount of screen time. She leads armies, snaps at power hungry underlings, rides around on some sort of space-faerie leprechaun-world segway, and otherwise gets the distinct honor of getting to act while sitting down the entire time. But she also has to wear floppy pointy ears and say the stern non-swearing line “Get the four-leaf-clover out of my way!”- not exactly a moment for Ms. Dench’s esteemed career-highlight reel.
But Judi Dench’s character, though apparently important, is not the main character. One might suspect that since the film’s title is “Artemis Fowl”, he’d be the main character. Wrong. It’s apparent sooner than later that young Artemis has been swallowed up by his own movie. Which is most unfortunate, considering that a film about a boy genius who is the world’s greatest criminal mastermind would make for a fun and kinda cool junior-level cat-and-mouse caper film (even with the bits about magic and fairies bring sown in). This, though, is not that film. Having watched it, one wonders if the kid actually ever earns the title of “criminal mastermind” at all. We only see him (along with his faithful and lethal butler named Butler [Nonso Anozie] and Butler’s niece [Tamara Smart] who is introduced into the film to only ever bring Artemis a sandwich) racing the clock to save his father.
But Artemis’s desperate efforts are back-burnered for long stretches as other people, perhaps with more legitimate claim to this movie’s elusive granting of “main character” prove far more dynamic. The lesser of these two is Josh Gad as an irritating, imprisoned giant dwarf pickpocket who offers his services in the all-important mission to get the missing macguffin back from Fowl’s sprawling coastal-Ireland estate. Gad’s character is the one telling the story directly to the camera, at least until the movie catches up with him. With his enchanted nose hairs, propulsion farting and love of the music of Foreigner, this weird character is both a kid’s dream and parental repulsion. But, he does have enough of an ark to consider him central. (Though I’d rather not).
Per the way the film is assembled, it’s probably most fair to declare the elven reconnaissance officer Holly Short, played by the young Lara McDonnell, as the true main character of Artemis Fowl. Holly’s tale takes center stage so often it’s as though Branagh and his editors decided after the fact that McDonnell is the real breakout star here, as the camera loves her and she has the magnetism that Artemis himself lacks. Muddling through the whole of Artemis Fowl, one comes away feeling a bit sorry for her, as this was, no doubt, supposed to be her big break. With any luck (Irish or otherwise), plenty more opportunities will follow.
With way too many characters, backstories, and plot, Artemis Fowl is one of those movies that ends up feeling too long for being too short. Meaning, that had the movie been allowed just a bit of breathing room for character moments (which are completely absent- don’t expect to care about anyone) and decompression of all its hurried concepts and origins, some of this might’ve resonated. Alas, the “let’s just get this over with” clip does it and audiences no favors. What, on paper, sounded like it could’ve been the kids movie of the year instead simply leaves us crying “Fowl”! (No murder necessary).