‘Artemis Fowl’ Review: Fowl, Not Fair
Kenneth Branagh’s film has no reason to exist, other than to spawn sequels
New York Times, 11 June 2020
Few filmmaking trajectories in recent decades have been as perplexing as that of Kenneth Branagh, who once impressed critics as a superior director of Shakespeare. If his literary side hasn’t fully receded — lately his taste runs to Agatha Christie — on a bad day, he goes mercenary, stewarding properties like “Thor,” 'Jack Ryan' and now “Artemis Fowl” (streaming on Disney Plus). The latest movie, based on a novel in the young-adult series by Eoin Colfer, projects absolutely nothing beyond a desire to kick-start a new hotshot franchise: Coming soon! Seven sequels. Insert original here.
“Artemis Fowl” stockpiles ingredients from successful series of yore, whether “Star Wars” (a robed villain with a technologically tweaked croak), Harry Potter (the dwarf played by Josh Gad surely shares a barber with Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid) or “Lord of the Rings” (the commotion of sprites and goblins). Even the suits-and-shades aesthetic of “Men in Black” finds a place. Somewhere in this overstuffed grab bag is the title character (Ferdia Shaw), a 12-year-old boy genius and — by the end — professed criminal mastermind. In the hubbub, he gets precious few opportunities to show off his masterminding.
The screenplay, by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson (“The Seafarer”) and Hamish McColl, sets up Artemis as a character who theoretically is always a few steps ahead of the audience: a child so smart he can beat a chess champion in five moves or clone a goat. An introductory scene finds Artemis matching wits with a therapist and quickly besting his knowledge of antiques. He points out that a chair that appears to be three centuries old shows evidence of industrial tooling.
But after the boy’s father, the elder Artemis Fowl (Colin Farrell), disappears, the protagonist and his bodyguard (Nonso Anozie) are reduced to following clues that themselves progress in a machine-tooled fashion. Or maybe Artemis is simply so smart that he can’t waste time allowing the audience to share in the fun of solving mysteries. Every clue leads directly to another clue; each expository nugget pays off with clockwork precision.
Fowl Sr.’s disappearance relates to his knowledge that Earth’s core is filled with fairies, centaurs and other fantasy creatures. (A joke suggests that David Bowie was one of them, living among us.) After the debacle of “Cats,” Judi Dench can surely count her performance as the boss of a special-forces outfit called LEPrecon as a significant downgrade in embarrassment, even if the role does compel her to bark “top of the mornin’” upon arriving in Ireland as if it were a Schwarzenegger catchphrase.
The other significant players are Holly (Lara McDonnell), an officer with a tendency to disobey the Dench character’s orders, and Gad’s dwarf, who is large for his species. His function is to narrate the tale and to signal his superiority to the material with an occasional reference to 1980s pop music or a diet fad. (Of why humans should be kept ignorant of the world underground, he says, “Most human beings are afraid of gluten.”)
Although Branagh serves up an occasional inspired image (a troll hanging from a boxy-lamped chandelier), the effects mostly have a sense of weightlessness, and the swirl of color offers little to catch the eye. Despite his aptitude for verse, Branagh can’t do much to direct a line like “Some said I was mad. They wouldn’t listen to me. Guess what? They’re listening now” — other than maybe to cut it, which he hasn’t. Once a portrayer of Hamlet’s antic disposition, Branagh has made a movie that is simply antic.
Artemis Fowl Rated PG. Angry troll, fireproof goblins. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Disney Plus.