I’ve been waiting for an “Artemis Fowl” movie for almost 20 years. I picked up the first book in the fantasy series by Eoin Colfer when I was in middle school and immediately became an avid fan, devouring each of the subsequent seven books in the series as soon as they were released. But whether you’ve read the books or not, I think audiences will be able to all agree on one thing: that the “Artemis Fowl” movie that debuted on Disney Plus this weekend (forgoing its intended theatrical release as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic) is one of the worst book-to-film adaptations to ever be created.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film opens in Ireland, where we meet Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), a 12-year-old prodigy and son of an antiques dealer (Artemis Fowl I, played by Colin Farrell), who lives in a sprawling seaside manor with his father, bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie), and Butler’s (oops, actually the characters in the film refer to him by his nickname “Dom,” just one of many sins against the books that this movie commits) young niece Juliet (Tamara Smart). After his father disappears while on one of his many business trips, Artemis receives a mysterious phone call from someone who claims to have captured him, and gives him three days to recover the Aculos, a powerful fairy artifact that Artemis Fowl senior apparently stole (the Aculos is not in the books and I still don’t know what it is, please don’t ask me). Dom then reveals to Artemis a library hidden in the lower levels of their mansion, where the Fowls’ have gathered research on the existence of fairies over the years. Artemis then plans to kidnap a fairy to make them deliver the Aculos to him; that fairy ends up being Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), who in the fairies’ home of Haven City is an officer in the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance (or LEPrecon).
The film rights to “Artemis Fowl” were picked up not long after the first book was published, but since then, the project has languished in development hell, the rights changing hands multiple times before Disney finally got it off the ground. It’s no wonder, then, that anticipation for this film was high among Fowl fans, but even so, “Artemis Fowl” makes many, many mistakes. It’s common knowledge that changes from the source material are frequently made when a book is adapted for film, usually to make the story a little more streamlined and accessible to those who may otherwise be unfamiliar with it. Sometimes, a film can even improve on its source material. But this “Artemis Fowl” movie tries to cram elements of the first two books in the series into a scant 95 minutes. And with essentially two protagonists to establish, it has a lot to do before it can even get to the main conflict. There’s definitely some interesting world-building potential here; we get a glimpse of it when we are introduced to Haven City, the fairies’ world located just outside of the Earth’s core, which is surprisingly high-tech (there’s a subway system, and giant TV screens like you’d see in Times Square) and filled with different magical species, from dwarves to goblins (the portrayal of the thug goblins at the police precinct, however, is, uh, questionable at best). It’s here that we are also introduced to a couple fan-favorite characters besides Holly, like the tech-wiz centaur Foaly (Nikesh Patel) and dwarf and master thief Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad). We don’t see enough of how this world works, however, before we are whisked into a plot so hurried that we believe absolutely none of the characters’ relationships or motivations, nor do we care about what happens to them. A character comes near death and we don’t feel anything because we haven’t seen enough of them and their relationship to the other characters prior to that moment. Holly and Artemis go from enemies to friends in the space of two scenes; it takes several books for them to be able to even begin to build the foundations of that level of trust, but it doesn’t take prior knowledge to know that this film is moving way too fast, to the point where you often aren’t really sure what’s going on. The kidnapping plot takes up the entirety of the first book and the hostage situation between humans and fairies could have made a perfectly compelling film, but the addition of other characters and subplots to it as well as Branagh’s refusal to make Artemis the villain (more on that in a second) bogs down the story way too much.
It might be easier for me to cite some of the changes from the books and how they didn’t work in list format, so here we go:
- In the movie, Holly’s hard-edged boss, LEPrecon Commander Julius Root is played by Judi Dench. It is an absolutely god-awful casting choice and a hilariously bad performance, although we must applaud Judi for doing the impossible: finding a worse role than “Cats.” But the casting of any woman in the role of Root would have been a mistake. In the books, Holly is the first female officer in the LEPrecon; Root is a male, and pushes Holly to the point where it appears he’s being discriminatory towards her, but actually just wants her to be her best to pave the way for more women to be inducted in the LEPrecon. Clearly, someone behind-the-scenes of “Artemis Fowl” thought they were being woke by making the police chief a woman instead, but this choice takes away so much from Holly’s struggles and accomplishments as a character.
- In the movie, Opal Koboi is briefly introduced as the mysterious hooded figure who kidnapped Artemis Fowl II. In the books, Opal becomes Artemis’ archenemy, but that doesn’t happen until almost halfway through the series. Opal makes a horrible villain in this movie though because we don’t learn anything about her or her motivations. The way the film ends, it’s clear that we will see much more of her in future installments. It’s cute that someone thought this movie was actually getting a sequel.
- In the books, we aren’t introduced to Artemis’ absent father until later, and he’s just a straight criminal mastermind who doesn’t know anything about the fairy world. He’s made a bigger player in the movie; he has a good relationship with his son, and is the one who taught the skeptical Artemis about fairies (it’s Artemis who takes it upon himself to investigate the plausibility of these myths in the books, as a way to find gold and restore his family’s fortune and reputation after his father disappears).
- But as Artemis’ father gets to be in this movie, Artemis’ mother does not. Disney, number one fan of the dead mom trope, decided to kill her off sometime before the events of this movie, whereas in the books, she’s very much alive, just gone a bit insane after her husband vanishes. Artemis also has younger twin siblings in the books, but they are nowhere to be found here.
- In the books, Artemis is a cold-blooded, criminal mastermind slash genius. His primary goal initially isn’t to locate his father, but to get rich. Impersonal though he is, we catch glimpses of his humanity in his interactions with his sick mother, and, like all the best redemption stories, he changes as time goes by. In the movie, however, he starts out as a pretty normal, good-hearted kid (albeit as normal as a boy genius can be) who’s also physically active (in the books he isn’t athletic at all), but is, as Mulch proclaims him to be, a criminal mastermind at the end of the movie, although he doesn’t actually do anything that bad. Branagh said that he wanted to have Artemis go to a darker place by the end of the movie rather than start off there because he didn’t think audiences would buy into a character who is introduced as a preteen villain, but clearly the millions of people who bought the “Artemis Fowl” novel bought it, so what gives? Was this decision purely Branagh, or another instance of Disney sanitizing content for their audience? Either way, it makes for an infinitely less compelling character on screen.
On top of all that, the distorted appearance given to the bulk of the action scenes is disorienting and looks awful, almost none of whatever humor there is lands, and none of the actors do a particularly great job (although they also aren’t given great material). You can catch glimpses of Shaw doing a solid cold-blooded Artemis toward the end of the movie, but as mentioned before, the character wasn’t written that way for this movie, so instead he comes off as rather bland most of the time. McDonnell is a promising Holly Short; you can see some of that fire and determination that Holly possesses in her performance. Gad far and away steals the show as Mulch Diggums, with his wisecracks and shifty personality. You can say that the scene where dirt shoots out of his butt as he tunnels underground is an indication of how dumb this movie, but you know what? That’s one of the few things from the books (which, I might add, still hold up and are wildly entertaining) that made it in the movie.
“Artemis Fowl” is now streaming on Disney Plus. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated PG. 1 out of 5 stars.