Disney Turns Popular ‘Artemis Fowl’ Novels Into a Flashy Action Ride

Author Eoin Colfer once described his hugely popular “Artemis Fowl” novels as “‘Die Hard’ with fairies” back when the first volume was published in 2001. It seems like Disney took him seriously. Their long in the making “Artemis Fowl” movie is finally here and it is certainly more of an action romp than a magical thriller. Returning to direct is Kenneth Branagh, the great thespian once famous for turning Shakespeare into hot-blooded cinema, but now churns out popcorn entertainments for the mouse’s house. 

Fans of the books will recognize the quick intro for Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), a 12-year-old genius living in Ireland who is too smart for any school to handle. But his idyllic world is shattered when his very wealthy father Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell), an antiques collector and renovator, is arrested for apparently stealing quite the number of antiques (including the Rosetta Stone). However it soon turns out dad was not arrested but kidnapped by an evil pixie seeking the Aculos, the most coveted magical device belonging to the fairies who live beneath our world. Artemis Sr. had always raised Artemis to know about the great legends of fairies and it turns out they were always true. When the fairy world’s military force, Lower Elements Police or LEPrecon (get it?) send one of their officers, Holly (Lara McDonnell), to get answers about what happened with the Aculos, Artemis kidnaps her with the help of his loyal bodyguard, Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie). This puts Artemis on a collision course with the LEP forces led by Commander Julius Root (Judi Dench), as well as giant trolls and other menacing threats that pop out of vortexes to threaten the world.

“Artemis Fowl” was one of those projects trapped in development hell with scripts and directors getting switched around for nearly 18 years. The finished movie was done shooting back in 2018. Those who may recall the books from their childhood, or are watching their own kids reading them now, will not find much of Colfer’s tone in this adaptation. Artemis Fowl is the ultimate children’s literature anti-hero, a mischievous criminal mastermind who in the first book kidnaps one of the “little people” not to save dad, but get their gold. As played by Ferdia Shaw Artemis becomes your average Disney movie kid who lives in blissful ignorance until something introduces him to an alternate, magical reality. There’s never a hint of darkness or danger to Artemis, it’s a very cute approach to a book that basks in precisely going against the grain.

What Branagh delivers is a straight-forward CGI fest with surprisingly little humor or wit. The director who once shot all of “Hamlet” in 70mm adds little bravura to what should be a darkly charming fun ride. Instead this is some kind of mini war movie meets videogame. The screenplay by Hamish McColl and Conor McPherson gives little background on anything. The set-up consists mainly of Artemis in his mansion with Domovi and Domovi’s criminally underused sister, Juliet (Tamara Smart), waiting for the LEP brigade to land and shoot the place up. There’s a whole backstory of how Holly’s father is considered a fairy traitor because he helped Artemis Sr. get the Aculos before meeting his doom. But this is all discussed in expository dialogue and never amounts to much in the grander story.  Her bond with Artemis is not given the proper space to feel like a true friendship in the making, because the movie prefers to spend more time on repetitive action scenes. Obviously Disney is hoping for a franchise, so “Artemis Fowl” suffers from franchise genesis syndrome where the first movie is a lot of half-formed ideas that one expects will play out in later installments. 

Most of this movie is just one action scene followed by another. The evil pixie who captures Artemis Sr. does nothing other than clench her fists as he squirms in magical chains, and the LEP troops just buzz around firing their rifles at the Fowl mansion. Trolls randomly pop out of vortexes we assume are caused by the Aculos and stomp around. Branagh has fun with CGI scenes where the LEP can stop time and everyone at an Italian wedding party freezes or later a fisherman is left suspended midair along with his boat. It’s all slickly produced, even as we wonder why fairies need visors and guns, or why they need to be projected into the Earth’s surface in rusty-looking pods. The pixies in “Willow” were able to cause havoc with just magic powder and wooden wands. Branagh also never bothers to give us a sense of what life is like in the fairy underground world. There are many shots of Judi Dench on some futuristic balcony and in the distance we see specks of what looks like a city (a dimly-lit one too). Are all the fairy people just troops marching all day? Credit can at least be given to the filmmakers for turning the character of Commander Root into a woman for the movie. Dench as you can imagine does the role perfectly. She could easily lead a whole armada in real life.

When Disney does live action the production values are typically stellar, but even the corniest offering will also be about something. The recent live action remakes of “The Lion King” an “Aladdin” might be recycled tales, but they still retained some kind of general idea to offer. “Artemis Fowl” is much action without purpose. Of course Artemis Sr. gets saved, and in a final shot Artemis Jr. puts on his famous dark glasses and tells the evil pixie over the phone, “I’m a criminal mastermind.” But he has not earned the right to say that yet. This franchise has a lot of growing up to do.

Artemis Fowl” premieres June 12 on Disney+.