Fowl, but far from fair
Dir. Kenneth Branagh. UK. 2020. 95 mins.
Question: if Dame Judi Dench is a national treasure, and we all agree on this, can we not also consider a national treasure protection order? Hot on the heels of Tom Hooper’s atrocious cat wigs, Kenneth Branagh has cast his 85 year-old friend as a leprechaun (or LEPrecon) in Artemis Fowl, zipped her up in a tight green spangly suit, and given her the line: “Get the four-leafed-clover out of here!” (delivered in a gruff brogue which negates her work in Philomena). The karma of this business may ensure that one of his chums does the same to the Belfast-born producer-director of this film when he’s in his dotage. Certainly, his film is away with the fairies.
Artemis Fowl comes from the concept that Irish folklore is real, and the little people exist in a subterranean space which also houses an entire Enterprise full of Spock ears, jammed on elves, centaurs, goblins and dwarves.
In fairness, Artemis Fowl was in trouble long before Disney took it out of theatrical play and booted it onto the Disney+ streaming platform at the onset of COVID-19. It had already been postponed for a year in the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Planned since 2001 in various incarnations starting with Miramax, the shoot finally took place back in 2018, when Dench was a mere 83. None of this scene-setting excuses the end result, though, or makes it anything to inspire young adults in the same way as the nine books in the Fowl series written by Irish teacher and writer Eoin Colfer.
In the YA-adaptation pantheon, Artemis is a variation on the Percy Jackson template. Where Fowl has Dench and Josh Gad as a “giant dwarf” who looks a lot like Hagrid, the first Jackson film featured Pierce Brosnan as a centaur and Uma Thurman as Medusa. That’s where the similarities end, however. Percy was cheesy fun. Despite Colin Farrell in a cameo, this is an earnest, half-baked fairy story drenched in a thick soup of CGI. It’s awkwardly staged, with turgid, expository dialogue that is appreciably tricky for a palpably ill-at-ease young cast to deliver (with the exception of Lara McDonnell as an Elven reconnaissance officer called Holly Short).
Artemis Fowl comes from the concept that Irish folklore is real, and the little people exist in a subterranean space which also houses an entire Enterprise full of Spock ears, jammed on elves, centaurs, Goblins and dwarves. (They’ve been living here for a thousand years, apparently, which isn’t very long unless you’re eight years-old, giving a clue as to the film’s lower demographic than the book’s 12-17 target audience.) Artemis Fowl II is a 12 year-old boy and annoyingly superior polymath whose thieving father is kidnapped by a malevolent fairy because he has stolen an all-powerful magical weapon called the Achulos. Helped by his manservant/bodyguard Dom (Nonzo Anozie), Artemis Jr stiffly tries to bring his dad home without ever leaving the house (a CG-enhanced castle) in a story relayed by Gad’s giant dwarf Mulch to MI6.
The leprechaun element comes in with the internal magical police force called LEPrecon. They look like mini green Rocketeers and are led by Dench as Commander Julius Root (a male character in the book and perhaps even a male character here, it’s not clear or important, although her voice is suspiciously deep). They toss around time freezes and mind wipes while above ground in order to contain the havoc caused to, er, muggles, by magical elements which alter the space time continuum (or something). The first time this device is used, with an Ork run amok at a wedding party, it’s impressive. But there are diminishing returns.
As with Branagh’s last outing as a director, Murder On The Orient Express, the camera lurches around bafflingly and the edit works overtime to facilitate the ever-increasing need for effects work to jazz up the void.
Disney+ needs content and parents need a distraction for children cooped up, so Artemis Fowl will probably find its own quiet groove somewhere in cyberspace, probably alongside the Alex Ryder adaptations. For this demographic, the Spy Kids franchise is better, Lemony Snicket is very clever, Percy Jackson is entertaining, but there are literally days of viewing in the Harry Potter box set. If it’s cod Oirish you’re after, try Darby Gill And The Little People, at least it’s funny. This film is set up for sequels, but, like The Golden Compass (the film made of the first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy), the only real hope for Artemis Fowl going forward is if a prestige label comes in to rescue him from the Weinstein-originated wreckage.
Production companies: TKBC Production
International distribution: Disney +
Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund
Screenplay: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl
Cinematography: Harris Zambarloukos
Editing: Matthew Tucker
Music: Patrick Doyle
Main cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Colin Farrell, Nonzo Anozie