Young Adult literature is somewhat of a fickle genre. It encompasses books of nearly every sort, written for the ages of 12 to 18. While many of these works feature coming of age stories involving characters defeating a greater evil, learning to believe in themselves, or both – Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer was set apart. The main character was not only cocky but the source of his own evils. The books follow the story of Artemis Fowl, a rich genius 12-year-old criminal mastermind from a long family of wealthy criminals. Disney’s film adaptation is based on the first book in the series and while it tries its best to stay true to the magical world of Artemis Fowl, it loses a great deal of what made the series interesting in the first place.
In Disney’s adaptation directed by Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Murder on the Orient Express), Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) has somewhat of a superiority complex, but he is ultimately a daddy’s boy at heart. His father (Colin Farrell) is his only friend and the one who tells him of the existence of fairies and other magical creatures. One day, his father is kidnapped by a mysterious evil fairy who demands an all-powerful fairy weapon called the Aculos, which his father is presumed to have had, in return for his life. With his father’s disappearance, the entire human world is convinced that the Fowl family are criminals and Artemis is appalled at the label.
To save his father, Fowl devises a convoluted plan involving kidnapping a fairy named Holly (Lara McDonnell). In the process, he practically wages war on fairy law enforcement who not only need to keep the existence of fairies a secret and rescue their lost kin, but also reclaim the Aculos for safekeeping. This is all further complicated by the fact that Holly’s father stole the Aculos from the fairy world to begin with, the same fairy who kidnapped Fowl’s father has spies working in law enforcement trying to steal the Aculos, and the entire story is narrated by Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) – a criminal dwarf contracted by the fairies trying to rescue their kidnapped coworker from Artemis Fowl.
As far as positives go, Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums is one of the best performances in the film. The dwarf lands the most jokes and injects some much-needed vitality into the narrative. Judi Dench has fun with her role as Commander Root, captain of fairy police, resulting in some good-humored banter. Furthermore, the fairy world is depicted beautifully. Many films in the same vein have magical worlds poorly constructed with gaudy CGI, but this one is colorful and well-designed as one of Artemis Fowl’s highlights. The costuming perfectly complements its surrounding world. While many action beats are run of the mill, there are few instances where Kenneth Branagh’s creativity shines. He and his team make good use of not only magic as a factor, but also set pieces. To their behalf, no action drags on more than it has to. Unfortunately, it also feels like there is too much chaos that serves little to no purpose.
In a story that is reliant on a tightly constructed plan, the audience needs to understand the parameters and obstacles perfectly. In this sense, the magic of Artemis Fowl was not explained enough. There is an overload of information coming from many characters with varying intentions. Trying to piece together the specifics of the main plan from what limited knowledge the audience has of magic is needlessly difficult. This hinders the film, as tension is lost when the audience needs to be told when something is going right or wrong.
While most of the actors try their best, most performances miss the mark. The characterization is too rigid in some places and too forgiving in others, leading to unrealistic interactions that prevent the development of tangible personalities. Artemis Fowl himself suffers the most from this since his character lacks an emotional arc. At the film’s beginning, it seems that there is the proper set up for his character to be developed, but not enough attention is brought to cultivating it. Holly needs to prove herself across the narrative as well, but her arc is also quite static. Nearly every other character in Artemis Fowl exists as a plot device or to serve the leads, which leaves the story lifeless. There is a tradeoff – either bland moments that move the plot forward or fun ones that do little to progress. The resulting experience is less than ideal. For a convoluted plan supposedly cooked up by a genius, the finale is extremely unsatisfying.
While not without technical strengths, Artemis Fowl suffers from a fundamentally poor script. There is a dullness surrounding every pleasing moment. Once the audience tries to settle in the world, they are yanked out by offhanded or poorly delivered lines. The film’s aesthetic is infused with a personality that its characters lack. It seems like Kenneth Branagh could only do so much here. Artemis Fowl will probably entertain children as it engages the imagination. It is also equipped with a few good jokes and flashy action sequences, but they deserve a better story. It is not a wholly boring film to watch, but it is a wholly boring movie to consume.