There are plenty of cute, if forgettable, children’s fantasy films that offer just enough intrigue, action, and oddness to keep the entire family occupied for about two hours. Sometimes those films even get relegated to family film pile that you can trot out semi-frequently for everyone’s enjoyment. Sometimes those films even make it into a beloved category of Family Staple, the sort of movie you watch together on holidays and reminisce over.
And then there are children’s fantasy films like Artemis Fowl.
[Some spoilers for Artemis Fowl.]
Artemis Fowl was among the first casualties in pandemic theatrical release schedule, shifting from its in-theater premiere date to a much quieter debut on Disney+. It made sense insofar as the film had failed to garner the sort of buzz Disney was undoubtedly hoping for, and it was time to get the movie off the company plate, as it were. Still, fans of the book series from the early aughts were undoubtedly hoping for something that would stand up to Eoin Colfer’s story of the tween criminal mastermind.
They are bound to be disappointed however, because while Artemis Fowl, Jr. (Ferdia Shaw) does say those exact words—“I’m a criminal mastermind”—at the end of the film, there is nothing in the movie that explains why Artemis might think that or why the audience should believe him. The most we see the kid accomplish is reading a bunch of books and directing a friend or two to aid in his quest to recover his father (Colin Farrell) from an angry fairy. The kid is a genius, which we’re shown at the start of the film—actually that’s a lie, what we’re shown is the kid’s impressive surfing skills for some reason(?), and then eventually his distaste for his school’s staff—but that doesn’t translate to being a criminal mastermind of any sort. Even his dad’s label as another criminal mastermind doesn’t make sense because while his father is a thief, he’s mostly stealing things to protect the planet.
You can be a hero who people label a thief (you know, Robin Hood’s whole M.O.), or you can be a criminal mastermind. Within the books, Fowl definitely started as the former before morphing over time into a sort of antihero. But part of what made the series compelling was the fact that Artemis was learning human interaction from others, slowly becoming more attuned and empathetic via his time spent with fairies and other magical beings. None of this made the leap onto the screen, so the story has lost everything that made it different, and it’s hard to say why that occurred. Was Disney scared of having an unlikable protagonist? Were they worried that parents would complain that the character was a “poor influence” on impressionable minds? Did they assume they were only getting one film out of this, despite setting up the sequel, and simply wash their hands of the whole affair? Whatever the reason, it prevents the story from taking flight before it ever leaves the ground.
Kenneth Branagh directed this film, and it’s strange because he’s proven competent in this arena—Thor may not be many fans’ favorite Marvel film, but you can follow the action, the plot, and the characters, and the CGI doesn’t distract from the overall story. This is not true of Artemis Fowl, but perhaps we can’t blame Branagh given the script he had to work with. Written by Conor McPherson (The Eclipse, The Actors) and Hamish McColl (Mr. Bean’s Holiday, Johnny English Reborn), the film’s screenplay spends half its time explaining away a story that the audience should be shown. Most of the lines are downright tedious and overwrought on top of it. There’s a groan a minute and everything in spelled out in excruciating detail.
What’s worse is that the film seems to want points for being more diverse than the books perhaps were, but it doesn’t handle that diversity well. For a start, the Fowl family employs a black man named Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) as a butler and bodyguard. Dom spends the entire movie doing whatever Artemis asks of him, and eventually brings his niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) over to help aid in the search for Fowl, Sr. While Juliet is clearly another very smart kid, her role in the plot is literally relegated to bringing food to other characters—her first major action in the plot is making and delivering a sandwich to Artemis, citing his need to keep his strength up in order to keep looking for his father.
The fact that no one considered for a moment that this was generally a bad look for the film is further exacerbated when Dom is injured protecting Artemis and receives what should be a fatal wound. On the one hand, the movie happily doesn’t off poor Domovoi for the sake of Artemis Fowl’s character development, but while he’s ostensibly dying, Artemis tell Juliet to go get help while he sits there with her uncle. Had Dom died, Artemis would have been there for his final moments, his final words, while his niece presumably called for help. This can’t be counted as surprising because according to the story and how Juliet is placed within the narrative, that is all she and her uncle are: the help. Again, no one seems to have considered that this was a flaw in the story.
Alongside all of these problems, we have the character responsible for the frame narration of the whole film, a dwarf named Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad). Mulch is introduced to the audience at the very start of the film, providing testimony to some sort of random police force who are never named or explained. When we meet him in the fairy realm, he is immediately made fun of by other dwarfs—all played by little people—for being too tall to be a dwarf, and Mulch angrily informs them that he has gigantism, making him human-sized. If you’ve ever read the books, you know that Mulch on the page doesn’t have this particular condition. This suggests that the film deliberately altered Mulch’s character to have an “average”-sized actor portray him.
This is Hollywood ableism, plain and simple. Rather than casting a little person to portray Mulch—as they did with the other dwarf roles in the film—it appears Disney wanted a more recognizable name in the part. The problem, of course, is that marginalized actors have trouble establishing themselves as a “recognizable name” because roles are not typically cultivated for them, and it’s disappointing that Disney altered the character to fit a more conventional actor. To make matters worse, Mulch actually begs the fairies to use their magic to make him a “normal-sized” dwarf. His story uses the language and narrative beats typical of stories dealing with ableism, prejudice, and belonging in order to make the film seem empathetic and elevated, when the behind-the-scenes practices actively denied a high-profile role to an actor who undoubtedly could have used it. So in addition to being a very vague and mealy sojourn, it’s also a cynical one.
Add in a bunch of very vague Irish set dressing (the well-known “Irish Blessing” is featured prominently throughout the film, almost as though they expect audiences to have never heard it before), fairy uniforms that look as though they were pinched wholesale from The Santa Clause, and Dame Judi Dench expending far too much effort to collect a paycheck (she gives her all, but she doesn’t need to and it’s depressing), and you just about have all the elements needed to make this movie. The score keeps trying to convince you that the events you’re witnessing are something truly epic, but composer Patrick Doyle cannot save them. Oh, and for some reason, the opening credits are done in the same font as the cover of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Maybe they were hoping viewers would make the connection somehow in their minds? But it’s hard to imagine two stories being less alike, unless a big screen adaptation of Jonathan Strange gives the Raven King a jetpack.
All of these things add up to make Artemis Fowl one of the laziest efforts on children’s fantasy that audiences have ever seen. Just skip it and watch Labyrinth, Willow, Ladyhawke, or A Wrinkle in Time. You’ll have a better evening in.