AT A GLANCE
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonzo Anozie, Colin Farrell and Judi Dench
Critical rating: 1½ stars out of 4
Ferdia Shaw stars in “Artemis Fowl,” available now on Disney Plus.
By Forrest Hartman
It’s fair to say Kenneth Branagh is capable of greatness. We know this thanks to memorable acting turns in films ranging from “Dunkirk” to “Othello” (1995) and because of his equally thrilling work behind the camera.
Branagh is the rare screen star who has shown as much talent and breadth as a director as he has when chewing scenery. Although much of his directorial work is centered on Shakespeare adaptations – think “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing” – he has proven himself equally capable in the superhero (“Thor”) and mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) genres.
Branagh is also adept at entertaining the family crowd, as one of his most-charming directorial works is Disney’s 2015 live-action reimagining of “Cinderella.” That fact made his attachment to the “Artemis Fowl” screen adaptation promising. Originally, intended as a May theatrical release, the movie was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and shifted to a June 12 debut on the Disney Plus streaming service. Since most of Disney’s high-profile 2020 pictures have been delayed rather than shifted to this platform, one imagines executives knew what they had when Branagh turned it in. It’s not good.
Although we know Branagh is capable of greatness due to his lengthy body of work, almost everything we know about the title character in “Artemis Fowl” is due to voiceover narration or poorly developed plot contrivances that leave too much to the imagination. In fact, “Artemis Fowl” is so poorly developed – both in terms of characterization and world building – that it’s hard to imagine how Branagh would let this pass.
The same can be said of the admirable cast. Ferdia Shaw, who plays young Artemis, is joined by Colin Farrell (Artemis Fowl Senior), Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Lara McDonnell and Tamara Smart. There is enough ability in this group for one to expect a serviceable film. Instead, we get a hodgepodge that – although nifty to look at – alternates between confusing, dull and outright frustrating. The latter is true because there is good material to work with.
The movie is based on the well-received young adult novels by author Eoin Colfer, and the focus is on the title character, a 12-year-old so bright that he has no patience for school. The intolerance stems from the fact that Artemis knows more than virtually everyone, including his teachers and the psychologist who ineffectually attempts to knock him down a peg. Viewers learn these background points through terse narration and a handful of hasty scenes that do nothing to build empathy with Artemis. That’s problematic because one has to care about him to invest in the adventure that follows.
Although young Artemis hates school, he dotes on his father (Artemis Senior), a single parent who thrills his son with fanciful stories about fairies, goblins and other mystical creatures. These seem like fantasy tales until Artemis Senior goes missing, and young Artemis discovers that his father has actually been feeding him the secrets of a hidden world. What’s more, Artemis must tap into that world to save his dad.
The movie’s visuals are admirable. In fact, they are quite good for a picture included as part of the base, original content of a streaming service. These are special effects one would expect from a big screen feature … because that’s what was initially intended. It’s not easy to make fantasy material look believable, but Branagh and his crew succeed on that front.
Viewers are legitimately transported to a land where fairies and goblins are real, and it’s all very dazzling and Harry Potter-like. “Artemis Fowl” would seem, then, to be a perfect film for fans of that series. Alas, the Potter features are painstakingly mapped out so viewers understand the rules of the magical world they enter. This is not so with “Fowl,” which teases viewers without elaborating. That leads to a long string of questions that are never adequately answered.
Equally annoying is the lack of time given each key character. Artemis Junior is an outline at best. His father gets too little screen time to serve as anything other than a treasure for Artemis to chase, and Holly Short (a fairy who is key to the action) makes life-altering decisions with whimsical ease. Even the narrator, a “giant” dwarf named Mulch Diggums, is little more than a sketch. One might chalk this up to too many cuts if the film was longer, but at 93 minutes, “Artemis Fowl” could have added plentiful background without overstaying its welcome.
Every writing coach tells students to “show” readers what’s happening rather than “tell” them. The same advice is crucial with film, but “Artemis Fowl” is invested only in telling. Viewers never see the souls of the characters and – because of this – they’re never allowed to feel much of anything. A movie without feeling is a movie that fails.