[Review] ‘ARTEMIS FOWL’ is a turkey

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

ARTEMIS FOWL

Rated PG, 94 minutes

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Josh Gad, Ferdia Shaw, Colin Farrell, Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Judi Dench, Tamara Smart, Nikesh Patel, Joshua McGuire

Kenneth Branagh can direct movies. However, you’d never know this after watching ARTEMIS FOWL, a film whose stench is worse than the rotting corpse of his critically and commercially maligned MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN. This fantasy action-adventure is yet another generic, boring tale about a bland brunette boy searching for a magical McGuffin in order to prevent world destruction – and maybe worse than the norm as there’s little to no passion involved. Completely devoid of personality, with horrendously misguided performances and a narrative that’s an absolute mess, this is a waste of everyone’s talent and your time.

12-year-old Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw, who lacks the necessary charisma and magnetism to carry the picture) isn’t like other kids. He’s a super genius who’s already too intelligent for his class, having cloned a goat, beat a chess champion and designed an opera house all before the age of 11. So why is he even in school – stuck in a grade with similarly aged students – if he’s excelled past this? I digress. His loving father, antiquities dealer and intrepid explorer Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell), is frequently gone, leaving him in the hands of beefy bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie). The young smarty-pants’ only friend is Dom’s tween daughter Juliet (Tamara Smart), who shares an interest in sparring, physically and mentally. But she’s much more into him than he is into her.

Artemis’ world turns upside down when his dad goes missing while on his final mission. The media’s labelled him a criminal mastermind, and he’s presumed dead – at least for all of five seconds until Artemis gets a call stating Dad is being held for ransom. Maniacal evil genius Opal Koboi (confoundingly played by three actresses, Emily Brockmann, Jessica Rhodes and Charlie Cameron) is searching for the Aculos, a magical gold acorn-shaped weapon known to be in Artemis Sr.’s possession. In order to clear his father’s name and rescue dear ol’ Dad, Junior will have to figure out the clues in his father’s journals to find the Aculos.

Paralleling Artemis’ quest is the path of officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell). Her own father is also suspected of a crime, having smuggled the Aculos out of their underworld fairy community. Sadly, Branagh only draws the visual connection between the pair for a fleeting moment in the middle of the movie. Bound by duty to Commander Root (Dame Judi Dench, in a performance sure to earn her a Razzie), Holly is tasked to investigate a lead in the human world. Only hijinks ensue, and she’s captured by Artemis.

It’s overwhelming how ham-handed and clumsily constructed this big-budget franchise hopeful truly is – and hard to know where to begin with so much wrong going on. Screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl’s adaptation is surprisingly incoherent, given that the highly successful blueprints by author Eoin Colfer exist. The film trades in large expository speech dumps. Everyone talks at each other, not with each other. Very few conversations occur that express any internal stakes driving these characters. It’s all about the external stakes, which aren’t the least bit thrilling. Plus, emotional poignancy doesn’t hit correctly as the filmmakers don’t earn those moments. The audience is only aware of where the emotional pull is being placed because of Patrick Doyle’s pushy, overbearing score announcing it.

Dame Judi Dench in ARTEMIS FOWL. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

There are a multitude of conversations where characters aren’t physically shown speaking to each other, using cutaways and reverse shots that rely on ADR instead. And none of these conversations mean anything to the characters except to further the plot. It’s distracting, and leads us to assume re-writes were occurring long into the post-production process. These dialogue-heavy sequences run counter to the escalating dramatics, whether that be Artemis and Dom trading information, or Artemis and Juliet discovering clues, or – in the most egregious example of this – Artemis’ power play with Commander Root. That scene is utterly useless except to give Dench and Shaw shared screen-time.

On top of all that, there’s a wrap-around story that has con artist/ grizzled raconteur/ Hagrid wannabe Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad, putting on an incredibly ill-advised voice) incessantly narrating the shenanigans. Further monkeyshines occur once his character is established in the story. Diggums is a whirlwind of tired “dad jokes” and snark that almost doubles as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 audition for both Gad and Branagh. Yet nothing remotely compares to the scene where he unhinges his jaw, starts eating dirt and blowing it out his butt. There’s a close-up of his obliterated boxers and everything. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the film’s development process.

Story threads aren’t woven in properly as the filmmakers have unwisely assumed they’ll get sequels. Instead of innovatively connecting the dots and letting overarching themes  provide the potential series’ connective tissue, they don’t bother concluding arcs. The major plot points revolving around Koboi are left dangling. It’s confusing why her nefarious, shadowy presence is even in the picture since the conflict remains between the two worlds and she’s on the outskirts. Her mole Briar Cudgeon (Joshua McGuire) doesn’t do much of anything except visibly snivel at his superior. He doesn’t impede the mission, nor function archetypally as a mole.

The fantasy elements are also lacking. We get no sense of the home of the fairies, Haven City, as most of the time spent there relegates Dench and her tech genius centaur Foaly (Nikesh Patel) to a non-descript military base no different from any human one. Most of the action takes place in the human world, and we barely get an introduction to the otherworldly location.

There are a few positives. Farrell undercoats his minimal screen time as “the hot dad” with gobs of warmth and heart, which makes us forget that ultimately he’s wildly irresponsible, leaving his child without a parent. Women in Fowl’s world may not amount to more than “Strong Female Characters,” but at least they demonstrate some agency. While the narrative is less than dazzling, Jim Clay’s production design is stunning, specifically when it comes to Fowl Manor. His work reflects almost innocuous narrative motifs, from the expansive, manly dark wood and leather libraries, to the sleek laboratory lined with massive apothecary cabinetry containing wondrous, perfectly-lit discoveries, to the eclectic homey flourishes.

Grade: D-

ARTEMIS FOWL begins streaming on Disney Plus on June 12.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.