Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Artemis Fowl Is a CGI Orgy That Goes Nowhere

Social ills become frivolous punchlines in this dire slice of Hollywood escapism.

Artemis Fowl
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Disney’s Artemis Fowl, based on the first book of the YA series by Eoin Colfer, is set in modern-day Ireland and incorporates familiar Irish myths into a hodgepodge of archeological adventure, espionage, and superhero action tropes. The eponymous character is a 12-year-old boy genius (Ferdia Shaw) whose father, Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell), secretly serves as an unspecified kind of mediator between humans and fairies. Kidnapped by a spectral figure who may or may not be his nemesis, Opal Koboi (alternately played by Emily Brockmann, Jessica Rhodes, and Charlie Cameron), the man, in his absence, becomes a suspect in the burglary of priceless artifacts like the Rosetta Stone and the Book of Kells. Naturally, it falls on his son to rescue him, which, for reasons that the screenplay bends over backward to both explain and obscure, involves the recovery of a magical artifact called the Aculos.

This setup, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Artemis Sr. even leaves behind a journal with a plot cue behind every turn of the page), makes way not for a fantastical journey, but a messy ransom scheme. To track down the Aculos and save his father, Artemis Jr. traps the fairy Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) in his home, which sets up a confrontation with the fairy police force that Holly belongs to: the punnily (and cringe-inducingly) named L.E.P. Recon. Artemis’s plan isn’t entirely clear until it’s put into motion, and even then, what unfolds seems an unlikely result of kidnapping Holly. One could say that Artemis Fowl finally goes off the rails around the time of Holly’s kidnapping, but because the boy barely leaves his own home for the duration, it’s more like it falls off the couch.

Holly gets almost all the action scenes, and we eventually spend enough time with her that we might wonder why the film is even named after the boy. A prologue sets up Mulch Diggums, an oversized dwarf played with hammy gusto by Josh Gad, as our rather intrusive voiceover narrator, with lines like “let me show you the infinite possibilities of magic” delivered in a crackly growl that you might hear in a high school production of Lord of the Rings. Diggums is the very embodiment of the respect this film has for its audience: At one point, exhibiting his dwarf-born tunneling abilities, he drops trou, bends over, and starts tunneling through soil with his preternaturally enlarged mouth, rapidly consuming dirt that he expels out of his rectum and shoots out of his heart-patterned boxers toward the camera.

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The scene in question sees Diggums burrowing into Artemis’s palatial home on the Irish coast, where most of the story takes place. As if prepared for the audience’s need to escape this atmosphere of excessive domestic comfort, the film’s first half gives us some time away from Artemis, in a copied, pasted, and downscaled version of Thor’s Asgard identified as “Haven City.” It’s a magical universe fashionably reinterpreted as a technological dystopia, complete with widespread surveillance, strict racial hierarchy (the Goblins, who wear hoodies and chains, seem like refugees from David Ayer’s abortive urban fantasy Bright), and the aforementioned authoritarian police force, headed by Julius Root (Judi Dench). Social ills become frivolous punchlines in this dire slice of Hollywood escapism. Our entree into this mystic realm includes watching a holographic display sentence Diggums to 400 years’ imprisonment for “tunneling and entering.” What a wondrous world of fantasy.

It’s tempting to observe that such a thoughtless weaving of “real world” social details into a fantasy setting suggests an exhausted, hemmed-in imagination typical of our moment. For his part, Artemis the Younger turns out to be well suited for our COVID-19 times, as he’s mostly homebound, his education suspended and personal growth stunted. An early scene in which he snottily tells off a school counselor (Gerard Horan) appears to signal the beginning of a story of personal development—that the precocious youngster will learn to shake off his hubris and engage with the world—but nothing of the sort materializes out of Branagh’s stagnant CGI orgy. Artemis Fowl concocts an adventure that requires its privileged hero to go virtually nowhere, physically or emotionally. As if he ordered it on Instacart, conflict is simply dropped off on his front stoop, and all he has to do is throw on some shoes and sunglasses to pick it up.

Score: 
 Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench, Hong Chau, Miranda Raison, Nikesh Patel, Joshua McGuire  Director: Kenneth Branagh  Screenwriter: Conor McPherson, Hamish McColl  Distributor: Disney+  Running Time: 95 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2020

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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