The poor adaptation of the source material meant Artemis Fowl never stood a chance, but that’s not the film’s only weakness.
When Disney chose to release Artemis Fowl on Disney+ rather than delay its theatrical release or opt for Premium On Demand, it raised suspicion that the movie might not be particularly good. But there were warning signs long before the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered the plans of major studios. Based on the 2001 young adult fantasy novel by Eoin Colfer, the film languished in preproduction for about 15 years. The rights changed hands, from Miramax to Disney, creators came and went. When the first trailer finally dropped, fans of the book were confused and disappointed. Still, Artemis Fowl fails to live up to even the lowest of expectations.
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It’s telling that the Harry Potter books were so swiftly made into films that, for the most part, pleased and resonated with that series’ fanbase, while Artemis Fowl’s adapters struggled to find their footing. Artemis was never as popular as Harry, and crucially, because the character didn’t age along with his readers, Colfer’s take on teen fantasy never had the same crossover appeal. Thus, an Artemis Fowl movie doesn’t seem timely or necessary in the least.
One would think that, after nearly two decades of development, the kinks would’ve been hammered out. Instead, the movie feels like something that has been tinkered with beyond the point of recognition. Those who have read the books have already expressed their displeasure.
The adaptation is so appallingly ill-conceived, the screen version never stood a chance. The eight-book series is a snarky high-tech take on fantasy tropes that encourages readers to identify with a slick tween anti-hero. They appealed to a certain kind of kid because of Artemis’ attitude and the story’s snappy pace. The filmmakers not only rob the title character (and his supporting players) of every last ounce of charisma, they’ve also diced and tossed the narrative into a flavorless plot salad that makes little to no sense, and added and omitted elements for no discernible reason.
While the books drop the reader right into the action, and respect even the youngest fans enough to know they’ll catch up, the movie takes nearly half of its runtime to hit its stride, going out of its way to explain everything. A cardinal rule of creative writing, especially screenwriting, is to show rather than tell. Artemis Fowl lazily relies on telling throughout. Its characters speak in ham-fisted exposition and foreshadowing. When Artemis tells his father, “All I really want to believe in is you,” it’s eyeroll-worthy instead of sweet and symbolic. Although the words themselves hit the audience over the head, it’s still difficult to make heads or tails of the larger point.
The problems don’t stop with the shoddy dialogue. A great deal of questionable decision making went into Artemis Fowl, but by far the most head-scratching is the overuse of narration in the form of the dwarf Mulch Diggim’s unbearable voiceovers. At its worst, the movie feels less like you’re watching a movie and more like a chain smoking substitute teacher is reading you a story that’s missing some pages, with obvious disinterest.
The rancid icing on the cake is the laughably bad vocal work by Josh Gad and Judi Dench. Both employ gravelly voices that ring in the ears like low-pitch nails on a chalkboard. If only Gad as off-brand Gimli tried the tactic, it’d be merely distracting. With two of the movie’s stars painfully grunting and gurgling out their lines, the audience is left to wonder if this was indeed director Kenneth Branagh’s instruction.
It’s not productive to criticize child actors, and Ferdia Shaw as Artemis had an impossible task given the tortured material. However, films that feature kids in leading roles live or die by the extent to which the characters pop on screen. Shaw’s Artemis is muted and aimless, while everyone else is either overacting or barely trying. Nobody seems to know what kind of movie they’re in.
At various junctures, Artemis Fowl wants to be Mission: Impossible for kids, or campy Lord of the Rings satire, or yet another Disney movie about dead moms, missing dads and coming of age. The visual style doesn’t help. The magical world of Artemis Fowl is overwrought, convoluted and unoriginal. The project reportedly cost about $125 million to produce, but it has the unmistakable look of an early-2000s movie. The CGI is inconsistent, especially during the big set pieces.
This isn’t the first time Disney has dropped the ball with a live-action adaptation. In fact, it’s becoming a trend that should cause the studio to do some self-reflection. Most recently, Disney underwhelmed with A Wrinkle in Time and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but there’s also John Carter, Around the World in 80 Days and The Lone Ranger to consider. Though Disney recruits capable talent in its attempts to bring literature to life, those efforts seemed doomed from the start, and suffer from a set of common problems: The scripts never live up to the texts, the actors seem adrift and drastic changes are made for reasons that are unclear.
Perhaps Disney is trying too hard to fit the world’s much-loved stories into its brand image, when producers should have the confidence, once they’ve acquired properties like Artemis Fowl, to proudly display them as they are. It’s tragic when a great or even a good book turns into a boring movie. Artemis Fowl wants to take us on an adventure, but (especially as it’s playing on Disney+) it’s entirely possible that many who press play will give up the quest and turn back for home.
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