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‘Artemis Fowl’ is an Adequate Adaptation That Doesn’t Do The Books Justice – Review

Depending on a number of factors, as a young reader you would have encountered a young adult fiction series that would be the basis of your reading preferences for life. Most of these books are based in fantasy, some veering towards science fiction, while others were allegories of biblical tales or you had your fair share of mythical gods and monsters.

Some of you may have grown up with the boy wizard, Harry Potter, the honourable Pevensies, the son of Poseidon, Percy Jackson, the mathematical genius Meg Murry, or maybe you prefer being the literary accomplice to one criminal boy genius, Artemis Fowl.

Artemis Fowl follows said boy genius – he is a criminal mastermind and gets entangled in the world of fairies. The film adaptation is based on the first book of an eight novel series by Irish author Eoin Colfer. The story observes Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) as he kidnaps a fairy for a large ransom. However, the film adaptation takes liberties with the novel and condenses much of the story. Instead, this adaptation follows Fowl just before he enters the “criminal” part of his story arc.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Fowl is a young pompous kid who loves his father and is alienated from society because of his intelligence. His mysterious father sets out on one of his many adventures only to be captured by an evil doer and his criminal behaviour is exposed to the world. Fowl becomes determined to save his father by any means necessary, even if that includes kidnapping a fairy and bringing a fairy battle to his front door.

Although the novels were written for younger audiences, there was a sophistication and maturity to Colfer’s writing that lent itself to the premise of a young boy genius outsmarting both humankind and the magical world beneath his feet. The themes of greed, trust, and the great difference between good and evil are certainly complex, but not too complex for young readers to understand. However, the adaptation strips the story of its core themes and reduces them into a buffoonish romp for kids who aren’t challenged by any means.

Unlike a Harry Potter or a Meg Murry, Artemis Fowl is pretty ruthless, cold and rotten. His journey is that of redemption, but the film makes his criminal endeavours (or I should say future criminal endeavours) seem cutesy, lacking any consequences or nuance. When the novels were first published they were compared to the Harry Potter series and deemed smart by many critics; this adaptation does not live up to any of that. Furthermore, it cannot even compare to the film adaptations of Harry Potter which is (arguably) the golden standard for YA adaptations.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

The film adaptation was directed by Kenneth Branagh, and co-written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl. Although, the craftsmanship is admirable, at times even stunning (which is to be expected from a Branagh feature), so much of it just felt lacklustre. Due to the spread of COVID-19, the film will debut on Disney+ and sadly, it seems to be a better fit on the streaming platform than in a theatre since it lacks a certain cinematic quality that Branagh and Disney as a whole were once used to.

Disney certainly has the money and means to pull off the larger special effects in the fairy world, the attention to detail to craft Fowl Manor was very impressive (easily one of the best movie houses) and the sweeping shots of Ireland will leave you breathless. Creating a compelling space has never been a problem for Branagh. However, that doesn’t stop Artemis Fowl from feeling and looking like a Disney Channel movie, and the added disappointment of a particularly mundane script does not help the matter.

Perhaps the expectations of entertainment for children has changed drastically from the days of the Harry Potter franchise and that is unfortunate. It’s a shame because the modernity and inventiveness of Artemis Fowl could easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the aforementioned film series, however, the fear of being too dark comes across rather condescending and belittling towards the intelligence and imagination of children.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

In many respects, the film is oddly similar in plot to the recent A Wrinkle in Time adaptation from Ava DuVernay, although that film actually had our protagonist go through some kind of character growth. But what A Wrinkle in Time managed to get right is that the tone fit with the characters and their adventure, while Artemis Fowl does not understand what the tone should be for its protagonist and his story. In essence, Disney did what Disney does best best, it ‘Disneyfied’ Artemis Fowl, which essentially means it pacified the story.

Based on the trailers, it seems much of the film was cut and the story condensed to one main set piece, the Fowl Manor. Here Fowl, Dom Butler (Nonso Anozie), Juliet Butler (Tamara Smart), Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), and Mulch (Josh Gad) are working towards finding the MacGuffin of the film. Much of the character development and relationships between the characters are reduced to one-liners, exposition dumps, and emotional beats that are never worked towards.

The ensemble is a who’s who of past Disney adaptation actors which distract from the characters. Gad (LeFou in Beauty and the Beast) plays the giant dwarf Mulch who is in need of lozenge and is unfortunately the films narrator. Colin Farrell fresh off his turn in the live-action Dumbo plays Artemis Fowl Sr. and is thankfully using his own accent for the part. His role is small but effective to a degree, because who wouldn’t want to watch Farrell? Nonso Anozie (a regular collaborator of Branagh), plays Domovoi Butler, and is sadly no more than the token Black character in a subservient role. Judi Dench also makes her presence known as the lead commander fairy. Her purpose is to stand around barking orders, and that’s about it.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Newcomers Shaw, McDonnell, and Smart are delightful young actors, but are given very little to showcase their talents or range. Nothing in their performances make them compelling or make us feel eager to watch them carry on with their adventure. For me, Shaw sadly does not scream Artemis Fowl, but that’s because much of the dubious nature of the character is reduced to being a sad and bored boy genius.

Holly and Artemis are meant to start out as adversaries, but the film doesn’t bother with developing anything substantial, and jumps straight into: “Let’s be friends even though our relationship started with a kidnapping.” Unfortunately, this watered-down version of the story lacks characters that are strong enough to be the foundation for a potential franchise.

Any promise this film had was squandered, but improvements can be made if there is a sequel. The adaptations will be a far cry from what the books were, and my guess is that no fan of the novels will look to the films with fondness, but all is not completely lost if Disney actually wants to put some effort into it. It’s okay if a protagonist is unlikable, and somewhat evil, because the journey to the end will be much more rewarding. 

As someone who had read the books when they were younger, I would implore parents to let their children read the books and not watch a subpar adaptation that does not celebrate the fun, exciting and complex protagonist and found in the novels. That being said, it doesn’t totally mean the movie is a lost cause. Sure it may be forgettable, but it will is pretty to look at while you watch with the whole family.

Artemis Fowl begins streaming on Disney+ June 12.

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