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Artemis Fowl

Posted June 23, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

At long last, my family bit the bullet and signed up for Disney+. So now the time has finally come to talk about a film I’ve been heavily anticipating for the past couple of decades, and dreading for the past few months.

Like many other children who devoured every YA fantasy book within reach until the next Harry Potter hardback came out, I grew up with the Artemis Fowl books. I went back and revisited the series about a year ago, and the books have really held up (though the last few entries lost a fair bit of steam — Eoin Colfer was smart to end the series when and where he did). The world-building is still mind-blowing, the comedy and wordplay are still whip-smart, the plots are devilishly intricate yet simple enough for young readers to follow, and the environmentalist message has only grown more relevant.

Yet while I loved the fusion of futuristic sci-fi with old-fashioned fantasy lore, it was the central band of misfits that I kept coming back to. Mulch Diggums, the kleptomaniac dwarf who was never the least bit trustworthy and never trusted anyone in turn. Foaly, the centaur whose genius was at least partially rooted in crippling paranoia. Holly Short, the loose cannon of the Lower Elements Police (LEP)Recon who had to push herself so much harder and faster because of institutional sexism. Butler, that giant tank of a human who served the Fowl family because — the way he was born and bred — it’s unlikely he could’ve found a peaceful and non-violent life anywhere else.

And at the center of it all, Artemis Fowl himself. A criminal prodigy and a technological genius who lusted for gold above all else. Artemis was always quite explicitly a bad guy, resorting to kidnapping, blackmail, extortion, theft, even breaking the laws of time and space itself to get what he wanted and needed. Yet as the books progressed, Fowl and his fairy friends would often set aside their differences in the face of some greater threat.

Oftentimes, Fowl was only the good guy because he was up against somebody even worse. It made him the good guy by default, while also helping him to grow a conscience and make him more sympathetic. Even at the start of the very first book, it was always perfectly clear that Fowl was motivated by a love for his family, so he couldn’t be all bad. Moreover, I don’t think he ever outright kills anyone or orders anyone killed, so there are definitely lines he won’t cross. It also helps that while Fowl has the highest tested IQ in Europe (and yes, that’s explicitly stated in the text, I’m not just making that up for effect), he’s physically incompetent and needs Butler to do all the heavy lifting, so he’s not perfect.

And lest we forget, Artemis Fowl is a prepubescent millionaire who gets to go on globe-trotting adventures, hang with fairies, operate and even invent hyper-advanced machinery, and save the world multiple times. Even if he’s a villain or an anti-hero or whatever, there’s an inherent vicarious thrill in that.

Anyway, with the respective film franchises of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings going on to immediate world-conquering success, of course the film rights to Artemis Fowl were scooped up in 2001. Trouble was, they were purchased by Miramax. Which would’ve put this right about the time when Harvey Weinstein was actively laying the foundations for his own downfall.

It wasn’t until freaking 2013 when Disney finally pulled this picture out of turnaround. Kenneth Branagh came on to direct in 2015, and it looked like things were finally going smoothly for an August 2019 release. Until the Disney/Fox merger pushed the release back to May of 2020. Then the COVID-19 epidemic pushed the film onto Disney+, cancelling the theatrical release altogether.

Think the film has had a rough time already? Ye gods and little fishes, we haven’t even gotten started.

I mean, seriously, the trouble starts almost as soon as the movie does. Not even five minutes in, we’re introduced to Artemis Fowl (newcomer Ferdia Shaw) on a surfboard. Artemis Fowl — the boy so physically inept that he can barely throw a punch or run a mile without getting winded — and he’s surfing.

…Artemis, buddy, what in God’s name have they done to you?

What makes it even more perplexing is Artemis’ therapy session in the scene immediately after. I checked the scene against my copy of the second book, and it’s adapted practically verbatim. With one crucial difference: In the film, Artemis’ mother is dead. The one person in all the world (with the debatable exception of Butler) that Artemis truly loved and cared about, his one remaining tether to humanity, the motivation for pretty much everything he does in the first book… and she’s already dead.

This is maddening. With that one scene, the filmmakers show that they damn well know better, and they’re deliberately going clear off the rails.

The filmmakers did keep Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) in the picture, apparently trying to merge both of Artemis’ parents into a single character. I can see a kind of logic in that. After all, Artemis’ determination to find his missing father and restore the family fortune was another central motivation for the character. But then the filmmakers had to go and make it so that Senior already knew all about the fairies, serving as young Artemis’ introduction to the Lower Elements.

It’s not that young Artemis was so desperate for untapped riches that he went looking in places that everyone else assumed were fictional. It’s not that Artemis was so intelligent and tenacious that he succeeded where everyone else on Earth had failed, even against all the security measures put in place by the fairies themselves. No, it’s that Artemis Fowl Senior had already done all the legwork offscreen so Junior could hit the ground running.

WRONG!!! Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong WROOOONG *deep breath* wrongwrongwrongWRONGwrong wrong wrong wrong….

For whatever spiteful and/or misguided reason, the filmmakers are trying to force these characters into acting and speaking in ways they were never designed for, and this affects the performances in a big way. Ferdia Shaw is of course the most obvious example. I’m sure that Shaw is perfectly capable of playing a cold, calculating, manipulative young bastard who could run intellectual circles around everyone else in the room. And I’m sure Shaw could play a relatable young kid who speaks in canned lines because he’s upset that his mom is dead and Daddy’s never home. Except he can’t do both. Because the latter is the exact diametric opposite of Artemis Fowl as we know and love him from the books.

Thus we get the painful exchange at the ten-minute mark, in which Artemis of the film utters whiny cliched tripe that Artemis of the books would be ashamed to even think. And we also learn about the secret basement that super-genius Artemis Fowl Jr. didn’t even know was in his own house. It doesn’t fucking work.

Colin Farrell has a similar problem. Of course I could totally believe Farrell as a criminal mastermind who sired and raised his own deviant son. And of course Farrell can play a loving yet slightly absent father with a penchant for the paranormal. But again, Fowl Senior from the books (at this point in the books, anyway) was an overbearing and unforgiving father figure obsessed with gold and power, pressing his son into more of the same. So the film version is the diametric opposite of how he is in the books. Thus the filmmakers are actively fighting against the source material, and Farrell is caught in the middle, so of course his performance suffers.

And it turns out that in the movie, Junior — who, again, is supposed to be a master manipulator and a certified genius — never knew or even suspected that Senior was a criminal of any kind. Just… fucking… WHAT?!

Then we have Nonso Anozie as Butler. Again, a phenomenal choice on paper. Yes, he’s a black man while Butler of the books was described as vaguely Eurasian, but whatever. Anozie has firmly proven that he can play a loyal and loving parent figure, he can play a terrifying hulk of a man, and he can switch from one to the other on a dime. Exactly what Butler needs. Perfect casting.

Then he’s introduced as Domovoi Butler. His first name — such a closely guarded secret in the book series that he never shares it until he’s seconds away from death and everyone makes a huge deal out of it — and it’s literally the very first thing we learn about him. What’s even worse — far and away worse by many orders of magnitude — he only gets maybe thirty seconds of action in the entire film.

Consider the set piece roughly 70 minutes in, when a troll is set loose in Fowl Manor. In the books, this is when Butler proved himself a bona fide force of nature, taking down the troll with his bare hands in an epic mano-a-mano brawl that “became something of a legend, initially doing the rounds on the Amateur Home Movies cable shows and ending up on the LEP Academy Hand-to-Hand Curriculum.” In the movie, all the characters flail around aimlessly until the troll is taken down through sheer dumb luck more than anything else, and Butler himself is easily the most useless of all the characters involved.

In short, GAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!

There’s a character named Juliet Butler, played by Tamara Smart, and I don’t even want to talk about her. She’s the niece to Butler (younger sister in the books), she’s another prepubescent so she doesn’t have the pro wrestling background, and of course she isn’t the nurse to Artemis’ mother because said mother is dead in the movie. This is Juliet in name only, nothing iconic or interesting about her has been adapted, and she’s entirely useless to the plot. So let’s get to the fairies already.

I must admit that Haven City and its inhabitants look incredible. The setting, the tech, the creatures, the costumes, the magic effects, everything looks like it came right out of the books. That magma flare scene is a particular highlight. And of course we’ve got Kenneth Branagh directing, coming off his recent successes in crafting huge epic fantasy worlds for the screen (see: Thor, and Disney’s recent live-action remake of Cinderella).

In what’s getting to be a recurring theme with this movie, all of it works great in theory. Alas, the cracks start to show upon the realization that the fairies always refer to “humans” and never to “Mud Men”. But of course that’s just a pet peeve compared to the complete and total omission of the all-important environmentalist themes from the books.

And then we get to the characters themselves.

The first one we meet is Mulch Diggums, here played by Josh Gad. Another fine choice on paper, and probably the least offensive case in point. Mulch of the film is a smartass, a kleptomaniac, and a master of chaos who can scheme his way out of pretty much anything. Not bad. Even better, the film was remarkably accurate in portraying Diggums’… *ahem* dwarvish anatomy and how he tunnels through dirt.

Trouble is, for whatever stupid reason, the filmmakers put in a plot point about how Mulch is a human-sized dwarf and thus a pariah among his own kind. As if being a career criminal wasn’t reason enough for that, and why the hell would Mulch even care?

But then the real problem comes when Mulch finally gets a decent amount of screen time and Josh Gad is let off the leash. Gad is — and has always been — a notorious camera hog who will mug to the audience at every possible opportunity. And every single time he does so, without fail, he stops playing a character and starts playing himself in the same schtick we’ve seen a million times before (see also: Seth Rogen). Thus Mulch Diggums is subsumed and upstaged by the actor playing him. Great news for fans of Josh Gad, awful news for fans of the book or anyone who wants to see a character and not a showboat.

Judi Dench is on hand, here playing a gender-swapped version of Commander Root. Here we have a stern yet loving parental figure to Holly Short (oh, you’d better believe we’ll get to her in a minute), probably the only figure of authority that Short ever truly respected and listened to. In the books, Root held Short to extremely high standards because he wanted Short to succeed in spite of the oppressive gender politics. We still could’ve had that with an older mother figure who’s already blazed the trail and faced the obstacles that Short is destined to meet.

This role was perfectly in Dench’s wheelhouse. Maybe ten or twenty years ago.

See, the other thing about Root is that he was a thunderous force of personality, so renowned for his explosive anger that he was nicknamed “Beetroot.” With all the utmost respect to the great Dame Judi Dench, she doesn’t have that kind of fire in her anymore. She’s trying so hard to sell it, but her age keeps getting in the way. Though that wretched and inexplicable voice filter on her isn’t helping any.

So what about Foaly, played by Nikesh Patel? An Indian actor playing a centaur? Sure, why not? Sounds great. Does he have the tinfoil hat? Is there a single word about his paranoia regarding human surveillance and cyber espionage? Does he have a dry sense of humor that’s his only defense mechanism because he doesn’t have any hint of magic? None of the above? He’s just a bland exposition machine with no personality to speak of? GODDAMMIT!!!

Opal Koboi is here, which makes sense as she’s the grand overarching villain of the entire book series. Every bit as smart as Artemis Fowl himself, but with none of the conscience, even more wealth and power, and maybe five gajillion times the arrogant vanity. Except when she’s a vague figure with no grand master plan aside from standing in the shadows and spouting cliched threats. The megalomaniacal pixie whose all-consuming vanity is her most defining feature, and the movie never shows her face. This… no, this didn’t even look good on paper, seriously what the almighty fuck?

And then we have Holly Short. Oh, my dear sweet Captain Short, they did you so wrong in so many ways.

Par for the course with this film, she looks great on paper. Yes, the book consistently describes Short as an adult with child-like proportions, and here she’s played by a pre-teen (namely Lara McDonnell). I can look past that. McDonnell looks the part well enough, and her introductory exchange with Mulch Diggums is close enough to the source text by the atrocious standards of the surrounding film. And they’ve given her some daddy issues to give her something in common with Artemis? Questionable, but it does have some basis in the source material, as the death of Holly’s mother — another LEPRecon officer — was a pivotal trauma in the books.

(Side note: What in the Nine Hells is with these filmmakers and swapping out tragic mother figures for tragic father figures?!)

But then we get a scene in which Holly looks out longingly at the flight shuttles, told that she’s got her whole career ahead of her to go and fly.

To repeat, Holly Short doesn’t have clearance to fly in this movie. This can’t possibly be the same Captain Holly Short who was the notorious hotshot pilot of the Lower Elements Police. The books established early and often that flight was her specialty, her pride and her passion, and the movie does fuck-all with this.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the movie jumps the shark an hour in.

Things had been going relatively well up to that point. Holly gets captured, Artemis is holding her ransom, and things are more or less as they are in the book. But then, an hour in, Artemis asks if he can trust her. She says yes, and just like that, the criminal mastermind takes off the mirrored sunglasses that are his only defense against fairy hypnotism. And Holly doesn’t immediately take the chance to hypnotize him and get out of captivity.

I hate this movie. I hate this fucking movie.

I realize that I might sound like a fanboy who hates this movie for making changes to the source material — because I am — but of course I’m aware that changes in adaptation were inevitable. In the books, there were huge swaths of important world-building exposition conveyed through narration. That was never going to work in cinema, and the filmmakers were visibly struggling through the whole picture to try and cope with that. Some of them even work relatively well — recruiting Mulch Diggums as our narrator really wasn’t a bad idea in theory, even if the execution is a bit shaky. But then we have Artemis Fowl Sr. and his vast collection of fairy lore, and I really don’t have the energy to spend another paragraph ranting about that.

I’m not pissed off that the movie is different. I’m pissed off that the movie is worse. I’m pissed off that the filmmakers solved every problem with the dumbest and most uninspired solution possible.

From start to finish, it feels like the filmmakers tried to deal with the world-building and the exposition strain by dumbing everything down. And in a movie about a young criminal genius, built on an established IP that became so popular precisely because of how intelligent it is, dumbing it down to this extent is a capital offense.

Another prime example is the Aculos. What’s the Aculos? It’s a MacGuffin that the filmmakers introduced at the last minute to simplify everyone’s motivations and get the characters where they need to be in the moment. Seriously, the reshoots and ADR are so glaringly obvious, you can practically see the stitches where they patched it in.

What makes all the crowbarred exposition and dumbing down even worse is that the filmmakers inexplicably tried to cram the events of the first two books into one film. Not only does this mean whole storylines and events getting cut, but the filmmakers have to try that much harder to rush everything so it all fits into a 95-minute film. Easily the best example — the crowning achievement of this movie’s stupidity and flagrant disregard for the source material — is when Holly Short joins up with Artemis and forgives him for freaking kidnapping her. In the book series, it takes Holly the entire second book to get anywhere near that level of trust.

In the film, half an hour after the kidnapping, they’re “forever friends”. That is an actual verbatim quote from Artemis freaking Fowl. I’m done. I’m so completely and totally done with this.

Artemis Fowl had everything it could possibly need. It had the right director, the right cast, a great budget, phenomenal design, incredible source material… all of it destroyed so completely and utterly, with so many bone-headed decisions, it could only have been done intentionally.

It’s like the filmmakers wanted to keep everything that was superficially cool and pretty and marketable about the franchise while jettisoning everything that made it subversive, intelligent, and unique. What we’re left with is something brain-dead and uninspired, the smoldering wreckage of a war between incompetent filmmakers and the brilliant source material they were trying to beat into submission.

If you still don’t believe me, just look at this. Look at that awesome announcement teaser. The voiceover that firmly establishes the environmentalist themes. The opening scene of the first book, perfectly realized on the screen. They shot all this, they recorded all this, and they cut every single scrap of it from the finished movie. They had all of this great stuff and they threw it away with the rest of all the potential this project ever had.

FUCK. THIS. MOVIE.