For starters, it’s no Harry Potter. But when Aretmis Fowl debuts on Disney + on June 12th, you’ll wonder why this fussed-over and broken film version of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s young-adult bestseller — about a 12-year-old criminal mastermind — had to be this dramatically inert and emotionally barren. Colfer once described his fantasy series of eight Artemis novels as “Die Hard with fairies.” If only. What’s on screen comes up short on excitement despite the presence of some heady talent at the helm. That’s Belfast’s Sir Kenneth Branagh directing, Dublin-born playwright Conor McPherson (The Girl from the North Country) co-writing the screenplay and Kilkenny’s own Ferdia Shaw (grandson of Jaws shark hunter Robert Shaw) in the title role. Try as they might, their efforts never achieve liftoff for a production that’s been languishing in development hell since the dawn of the 21st century.
Young Shaw is actually playing Artemis Fowl II. No. 1 shows up in the person of Colin Farrell, who seems to enjoy letting out the natural Irish lilt in his voice. Too bad he disappears from the film and his son’s life so often, leaving Arty (as dad calls him) rattling around in the luxurious Fowl manor in the care of Domovoi Butler (Nonzo Anozie). That’s his name, by the way, and not his profession — call him butler at your peril, or “he’ll snap you in half.” Arty dresses in Men in Black suits and shades, but his purported evil genius is nowhere in evidence. This is not Colfer’s morally compromised tween villain, but a relatable lonely boy who is glimpsed early hopping on a surfboard before school. It’s a beautiful shot, composed by cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, who worked with Branagh on Thor and Murder on the Orient Express, to show why Ireland is indeed “the most magical place on earth.”
Sadly, said magic is otherwise in short supply. As the film begins, we learn that Arty’s mother has died, and Dad is a person of interest in some of the biggest robberies of the last 10 years (the Rosetta Stone and the Book of Kells are missing). Artemis Sr. keeps a lot of secrets — wait until you see his basement — but he does find the time to teach his boy about leprechauns, banshees, sprites, goblins and the fairies who live underground. Blarney? Not in this movie. Still, when dad is kidnapped from his yacht, it’s Arty who must ransom him with the Aculos, a device that gives fairies their power and can open portals between worlds. The mission: enter the fairy kingdom, grab the Aculos and use it to release his dad if he’s even still alive.
The movie comes front-loaded with exposition to help those who never read all or any of the books. Most of the verbalising emanates from Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a giant dwarf (?) being questioned throughout the film by MI6. As ever, Gad is good company, but the bearded Mulch is cut from the same cloth as Hagrid in the Potter series, whose wizarding world is, depending on your point of view, being revered or ripped off. Can a movie feel too busy and too constricted at the same time? Artemis Fowl is living proof. The story continuity is as shoddy as the special effects, surprising in an epic with a reported budget of $125 million.
It helps that the fairies are ruled by Commander Root, cheekily played by Dame Judi Dench with a shock of white hair and voice that sounds like she gargled with gravel. Dench is a hoot, going against advice from chief technical officer Foaly (Nikeesh Patel) to assign rookie Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) to zap up to the world of muggles — sorry, humans — and get the Aculos before Arty does. Or something like that. Shaw, a prototypical sweet kid, isn’t given a chance to portray the Arty of the books, who came off like a calculating Mini-me of Die Hard villain Hans Gruber. Luckily, the movie is purloined right out from under Shaw by the delightful McDonnell, who plays Holly like pixie with attitude, a Tinker Belle so eager to become a real soldier in the fairy army that she could bust. Root, who says she’ll be 803 next birthday, tells Holly to be patient: “You’re young, you’re 84, you have your whole life ahead of you.” The fact that Holly and Arty, who start as enemies, must form a bond sets up the possibility of a May-December romance (he’s a pre-teen, she’s an octogenarian) that this timid movie lacks the playful spirit to tackle.
The Disney version of Artemis Fowl covers everything in a blanket of bland that suggests the dull juvenilia in the film versions of Percy Jackson and The Golden Compass rather than the vigorous battle between good and evil that marked the novels. Instead, worlds collide at an Italian wedding where an escaped goblin goes on a rampage. “Most humans are afraid of gluten,” says Mulch, noting that there’s no way they can handle a goblin. The best way to handle this relentlessly nice movie that deserved a touch of nasty, is to enjoy the few flashes of what have been before the sheer heaviness of the production stomps out all the fun.