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‘Artemis Fowl’ is, well … foul

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There’s big money to be made in franchise filmmaking. With hundreds of millions of dollars potentially on the table, it’s no wonder that studios are constantly on the lookout for intellectual property that can be translated to the big screen for big bucks.

On paper, the “Artemis Fowl” series of books by Eoin Colfer looks like a solid bet. It’s got a high-concept hook revolving around a secret world of fairies, a kid protagonist and eight novels worth of narrative to be mined. The project has been in the works at various stages with various studios for almost two decades. And now, finally, with the Disney monolith behind it, the first film in the erstwhile franchise has arrived.

Don’t be surprised if it’s also the last.

“Artemis Fowl” – currently streaming on Disney+ and inexplicably directed by Kenneth Branagh – is wildly unsuccessful on just about every conceivable level. It is a jumbled mess that borders on incoherent, a scattershot attempt at world-building that basically throws a lot of stuff at the wall, only nothing really sticks. The tone is inconsistent and the plot is nonsensical. The 95-minute runtime is not nearly enough to provide the required context, though that is offset by the feeling of audience relief at its brevity.

While I can’t say for certain, since I haven’t read them, I have to assume that the books are better than this candy-colored lunacy. They’d have to be. They probably have an actual story, for instance, rather than a series of barely-connected events that may or may not have some bearing on the overall narrative. It has all the worst parts of an origin story without conveying much about, you know, the origin. All in all, a misfire of truly epic proportions.

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw in his cinematic debut) is a 12-year-old genius living in an Irish manor. His father, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell, “The Gentlemen”), is an arts and antiquities dealer who may or may not be involved in some questionable dealings. Their limited father-son time is made up almost exclusively of the elder Fowl conveying the intricacies of fairy mythology and folklore to the younger.

But then the elder Fowl is kidnapped and imprisoned by a mysterious hooded figure who demands that young Artemis procure and deliver something called the Aculous. This is when Fowl family valet/bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozi, “The Laundromat”) lets Artemis in on the family secret – all of the tales and legends with which the boy had been regaled are true. Fairies are real and live in a high-tech magic city at the center of the Earth.

The fey folk of Haven City want the Aculous (which I assume is Irish for “MacGuffin”) for themselves, and so look to find a way to track it down. To do so, Commander Root (Judi Dench, “Cats”) of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance (L.E.P.Recon – get it?) enlists Officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell, “The Delinquent Season”) to do … something? It’s unclear. But Holly’s dad was also an officer and apparently a traitor for dealings that involved the elder Artemis Fowl.

Also in the mix is Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad, “Frozen II”), a giant dwarf who is also the narrator (and using a weird and off-putting voice) thanks to a framing device involving his being captured by MI6 for questioning regarding the elder Fowl’s alleged crimes or whatever. Again – none of this makes much sense.

Anyway, Artemis and Dom capture Holly and use her as bait for Artemis’s big plan to save his dad. The fairy forces come to Fowl Manor to take the Aculous and use some sort of time-stopping doohickey to ensure that the rest of the human world doesn’t see them. But Artemis is a genius well-versed in their fairy ways – and he’s willing to do whatever he must to save his dad.

Apologies for the synopsis – it’s honestly the best I can do.

“Artemis Fowl” is staggeringly incoherent, managing to feel overstuffed while also utterly failing to explain or even acknowledge huge gaps in the plot. The unanswered questions pile up fast, leaving the viewer to simply shake their heads in wonder at the chaotic disaster before them. So little of this film makes any kind of sense; everyone seems content to throw in a few pointy ears, some CGI and a handful of truly awful lines.

(Seriously – don’t sleep on the terribleness of this dialogue. At one point, Judy Dench actually says “Top o’ the mornin’” like its an action movie payoff line and I’m fairly certain my soul left my body for a moment. Whatever they paid her, it wasn’t nearly enough.)

Now, I’m not ready to fault the performances for any of this (with one notable exception). The kid playing Artemis is fine. He’s a little inexperienced, sure, but for the most part, he’s fine. Particularly if you take into account the pressure that must have come from being tapped to lead a $125 million franchise-launching movie. McDonnell is OK, a bit flat, while Anozi cuts the right sort of imposing figure. Farrell looks like he was on set for maybe three days, but he’s a pro. Ditto Dench, who manages to both do her job and give the impression of utter bemusement at the bizarre s—tshow surrounding her.

But then we have Josh Gad. Full disclosure: I like Josh Gad. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. This, however, is just … wow. It’s like he’s cosplaying as Hagrid while doing a bad impression of Christian Bale’s Batman voice. I’m not going to say it’s his fault – I’m happy to blame the director – but there’s no mistaking the general badness of it all. Oh, and don’t get me started on the absolutely horrifying CGI stuff with him. I don’t even want to talk about it.

I do want to talk about how weird it is that Kenneth Branagh directed this movie. This was the guy who brought Shakespeare back to the cinema in the 1990s, but the last decade has seen him inexplicably recast as a big-budget director – he’s done a Marvel movie, a Jack Ryan movie and a live-action Disney remake to go with this one and two (one is due later this year) Agatha Christie adaptations. The thing is, he’s … not great at it. Not terrible, necessarily, but definitely not great. Whatever. Keep getting’ them checks, Kenny.

By almost any measure, “Artemis Fowl” is an abject disaster. It is an ill-conceived and poorly-executed example of putting the franchise cart before the first movie horse. It’s not impossible that we’ll see this story continue, but if the early returns are an indicator, I wouldn’t put money on it. Certainly not $125 million, anyway.

To be blunt, “Artemis Fowl” is, well … foul.

[1 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 15 June 2020 14:59

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