Review: Artemis Fowl is an inscrutable, insufferable mess

(This review contains loose spoilers regarding the ending of the film)

When we first meet the 12-year-old eponymous hero of Artemis Fowl, he’s ripping a gnarly wave on the coast of his massive Irish mansion. Soon after, he’s popping jumps in the woods off his dubiously trendy Onewheel. We’re told that he’s a master thief, a master chess champion, an architectural genius, a brilliant scientist. He is the coolest corporate-manufactured tween on the market, and an unequivocal Murray Sue. So it’s both baffling and frustrating that, in Kenneth Branagh’s Artemis Fowl movie, none of this matters or ever even comes up again—and, for that matter, just as rarely does Artemis himself.

The film is framed around the black-and-white interrogation of Mulch Diggums, as played by director Branagh’s maddeningly ubiquitous Murder on the Orient Express player Josh Gad. Done up like a bloated Charles Manson, Gad croaks through his narration in a mix of Dave Foley’s “Monkeys” sketch voice and co-star Judi Dench’s similarly over-grumbled affectation. It makes for the most grating telling of a story that already makes you want to tear your hair out. He can also stretch his mouth disgustingly wide and quickly dig tunnels by chewing, because he is the worst Looney Tunes character

In his incredibly specific recollections of events he should have no knowledge of, Diggums tells us and his unseen interrogator of a private scene between Artemis (unpromising newcomer Ferdia Shaw) and father Artemis Fowl, Sr. (Colin Farrell, giving his role far more than deserved). Poppa Fowl is apparently one of these absentee, all-business dads constantly away on trips, and while he asks that his son believe in his fairy tale stories, “all [Artemis] really want[s]… is to believe in [him].” It sets up a daddy-son redemption dynamic that never amounts to anything, so don’t fuss about it. The important takeaway is that it lends at least a mild empathy when literally the next thing we learn is that Fowl Senior has disappeared from his… massive yacht.

Soon after, a hooded, shadow-covered foe calls Artemis in ANOTHER croaking but now vocoder-driven voice that makes it seem like the antagonist is Princess Leia at the start of Return of the Jedi. They have Dad Fowl, and to get him back, they want THE ACULUS (not “oculus,” even if one naturally assumes it’s that for half the movie), a MacGuffin so inconsequential that its misguided name is basically all we ever learn about it. It looks like a rich old lady’s golden acorn tchotchke, and though the villain wants it in three days, that time constraint also never comes up again.

From there, the film practically leaves Artemis himself altogether to focus on the rest of the convoluted, idiotic world author Eoin Colfer developed in his original young-adult series. Underneath the surface of the Earth or something, there’s a whole world of fairies, leprechauns, dwarves, centaurs, trolls, and such co-existing. The fairies act as both cops and glowy laser gun-toting Men in Black, and they all dress like Sam Raimi’s Green Goblin. Led by Judi Dench with David Bowie’s late scalp, they police this lame fantasy underworld and, should one of their kind appear topside, they freeze time and wipe everyone’s memories of it. Though they have magic, for some reason this is all technology-based.

Surely this summary and its convoluted fantasy mechanics are already growing tedious, and that’s the heart of the issue with Artemis Fowl. It’s a film that almost immediately loses its own plot. The antagonist has maybe two minutes of screentime and never comes in contact with Fowl nor has any bearing on the story’s outcome beyond its instigation. The big reveal of just who the Big Baddie is never comes. It’s just some person in a hood who you never see and who does nothing but inexplicably capture Dad. The unexplained, magic MacGuffin they demanded? In the only example of Artemis showing any brilliance whatsoever, he just uses the magic to somehow warp his dad back instead of giving it to them. It’s absolutely the most anticlimactic ending ever for a $125 million film, and that the interrogator tells Gad, “What an extraordinary ending to your remarkable fairy tale,” is the most accidentally entertaining moment of the entire film.

That Artemis went well off the rails of its CGI train into Fairytown isn’t surprising. This thing has been in development since 2001—back when young-adult fantasy still seemed like the lucrative way to go—and has gone through countless permutations since. Even two years ago, when Branagh’s take was slated to hit theaters in 2019, Disney released a trailer completely unrecognizable to the final product delivered today. In that preview, Downsizing’s Hong Chau is heavily featured as a central character; in Disney+’s final version, she literally never appears (but was almost certainly meant to be the villain). Like with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it would seem studio intervention made a bad film still bad.

Which is to say, the director certainly does not go without blame. As we’ve seen with Thor, the minute you give Branagh something not written by a dead English writer, he becomes a hack that thinks he has to give some sad “wow factor” to anything remotely fanciful. Here, he repeats the regrettably jaundiced eyes of Heimdall to again give a black man haunting irises with Dom, a servile character surnamed Butler who, despite lampshading the issue of that name, nonetheless wears spooky azure contacts. Per the Artemis Fowl wiki, “Butler is a man of European and Asian descent, described as ‘the essence of understated efficiency,’ with his shorn hair and black Hugo Boss suit. He is an Asian-looking man (at one point being able to easily pass for Chinese) with a massive shaven head, narrow nose, full lips, and eyes such a dark shade of blue they are almost black.” So why Branagh decided he should be a black guy with highlighter-blue eyes seems nearly fetishistic at this point. Shifting the badass butler sidekick helping the smart white man from one race to another doesn’t really solve this pulp comic-era issue that shouldn’t even come up anymore.

And like the constant Dutch angles of Thor, Branagh likewise indulges in so many painful filmmaking tropes here. A slow-motion shot of Artemis dropping his (ridiculous old-fashioney) milk bottle in shock of his father’s disappearance? Yup! Some gaudy Star Wars prequels shots to define his boring CGI world? You bet! His own joyless replica of Bryan Singer’s already eye-rolling Quicksilver time-freeze? Uh-huh! After the previously-noted Men in Black bullshit, Branagh even has the balls to have the futuristic gun-toting kid and his regrettable man-servant—black suits and sunglasses clad, with strained exposition as to why—replicate an actual shot from MiB. It’s a dire effort.

Two-thirds into Artemis Fowl, a character not mentioned yet in this review because it hardly matters says, “Look at you with that grin, thinking you’re outsmarting everyone in your suit and sunglasses. You think it’s a game.” That about sums it up. As a smirking little shit who doesn’t do anything remotely clever, or even leave his mansion, why would anyone think junior high Howard Hughes is anyone? And moreso, why would Kenneth Branagh or Disney think this is a film?

As part of the 15-minute epilogue that falsely suggests an actual ending, Artemis vows “to finish this.” TO FINISH WHAT? This inscrutable, lazy mess better defined by its muddy history than its content? Artemis Fowl’s title star is completely unlikeable and undefined, his brief sidekick (Butler’s niece) is utterly sidelined and forgotten, the fantasy race and class gags all seem conceived by the most insufferable D&D group, and the antagonist he swears revenge on has less of a presence than Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw. When your emotional death beats make The Rise of Skywalker’s seem drawn out, what else is there to offer?

But to end, like Artemis Fowl, on the framing of Gad’s terrible Batman vocal audition, let’s close on Diggums. In the film, alongside people with actual dwarfism, a full-size Gad continually asserts he is indeed a dwarf, despite being this big ol’ unfortunate Gad, and there’s a running gag of people telling him he’s not. That’s not the case in the book, where instead the running gag is his flatulence. Artemis Fowl is the macroscopic take, turning a laughable fart into an unfortunate pant-shitting.

Grade: F

Artemis Fowl
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Studio: Disney
Runtime: 95 minutes
Rating: PG
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench

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