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The magicless mess of “Artemis Fowl”

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
1star
Cast: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Josh Gad, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench, Hong Chau
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: June 12, 2020

Ever since the days of Uncle Walt, the Walt Disney Company has been accused of the so-called “Disneyfication” of classic stories and books.

For example, you don’t go into the Disney adaptation of “Peter Pan” expecting James Barrie. All that is left of that story is a husk, an outline. It is nothing more than a shell that holds the Disney house style.

We could argue all day about the pros and the cons of this. You may argue, for example, that the essence of Barrie is lost in Disney’s “Peter Pan,” and you’d be right. But I could argue that not nearly as many children would be familiar with the story of “Peter Pan” and discover Barrie for themselves if it wasn’t for the Disney film. And generally these adaptations are pleasant enough – joyful even- despite the deviations from their source material. These films don’t have the same magic as their source material, but it is magic all the same.

The company’s formula hasn’t changed much over the years, but the magic has gone missing recently. They give us the husk but forget to fill it with anything worthwhile.

See “A Wrinkle in Time” or “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” Or, you know, don’t.

We can now add to that unfortunate list “Artemis Fowl,” which is as bad a film as you’re likely to see this year.

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

By all accounts, this “Artemis” has little relation to the popular fantasy book series that launched in the early 2000’s. Rotten Tomatoes goes so far as to say it will not just disappoint fans of the books but make them downright angry.

I’ve never read an “Artemis” book and cannot comment on the film’s fidelity or lack thereof. I can only comment on what’s on the screen. And, oh boy, is it a mess.

This “Artemis” is indifferently acted, incomprehensibly plotted and messily edited. It cost Disney no less than $125 million, and if the screenwriters received more than a single penny of that, they were probably paid too much.

The “plot,” as it were, is a jumble. It revolves around not one but two characters named Artemis Fowl (the younger one is played by Ferdia Shaw, the elder by Colin Farrell). The Fowls are supposedly master criminals, but we never see them steal a single item or really do any sort of criminal activity.

There is also an underground world of fairies and a “giant dwarf,” who is really just an average size human. There is, naturally, an obligatory magical doohicky that looks like a glowing acorn and has ill-defined, but much-coveted, powers.

“It is a weapon so powerful and amazing, it can barely be imagined,” we’re told, which just means that screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl never took the time to imagine it.

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

That’s not the only thing ill-defined in this film. Characters, for example, are assigned a name and species but no defining character traits.

This means, naturally, that the actors are a bit lost at sea, and the numerous child actors fare particularly poorly. You probably haven’t heard of Shaw, Lara McDonnell or Tamara Smart, and the odds are that you probably won’t ever again.

Shaw is the grandson of the great “Jaws” star Robert Shaw, and talent has pretty clearly skipped a generation or two. His line readings are as flat as a pancake and as joyless as pretty much everything else in this movie.

But even the “name” stars struggle. Many of the actors seem to confuse gravitas with a raspy, growly line delivery. Poor Judi Dench, as an elf commander, sounds a bit like what Tolkein’s Gollum would sound like after a lifetime of chainsmoking.

Farrell gets by well enough since he’s absent for most of the picture. But after a six-month window in which she has starred in both “Artemis” and “Cats,” I am starting to wonder if Dame Judi has hired Nicolas Cage’s agent.

The only actor not phoning it in is Josh Gad, playing the aforementioned giant dwarf. This is easily one of Gad’s worst performances- frantic, strained and charmless. But, good god, the man is trying. And, if nothing else, you have to admire the sheer effort he put in.

Even in his other director-for-hire work for Disney (“Thor”, “Cinderella”), director Kenneth Branagh has brought a sense of stately decorum that has elevated those pictures. There’s none of that distinguishing artfulness in “Artemis.” Anybody could have made this film, and I dare say somebody could have made it better.

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The film is curiously short for this sort of fantasy epic, and Branagh doesn’t have enough time to develop anything resembling a story arc. It feels more like a first act than a completed film.

Patrick Doyle’s Celtic score is beautiful and lush and almost always drowned out by the frenetic action on screen. The big emotional moments land with a thud.

A few action scenes work as do some of the special effects- $125 million had to go somewhere after all. Gad has a few funny throwaway lines although not nearly enough.

But “Artemis Fowl” (rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor) is a straight-up mess from start to finish– a reminder of what happens when even $125 million can’t buy Disney magic.

It’s easily the worst original movie on Disney+. But, keep in mind, the streamer is launching a movie about super-powered princesses next month.

So stay tuned. We might not have reached the bottom yet.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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