First slated for August 2019, the adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s young adult novel series Artemis Foul seemed bound for trouble when it was delayed into 2020. Then pushed again. Then COVID-19 hit and all bets were off. Making matters worse, the trailers for the Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation seemed to hint that the series was in for a set of changes likely to upset fans of the eight-book series. It wasn’t the hiring of Judi Dench as the originally male-written Commander Root or the race-changing of Domovoi Butler, both cosmetic changes at best, but the adjustment of the cold, sociopathic Artemis Fowl II, around whom the series is centered, to appearing more light-hearted and heroic. Fans, take comfort in knowing that while this may not be the exact representation you know, there’s little doubt that Artemis is a different sort of villain to root for.
Possessing a genius-level intellect, Artemis Foul II (Ferdia Shaw) doesn’t have many friends at school, which is fine by him as few can keep up anyway. Instead, he spends much of his time waiting for his father, Artemis Fowl Sr (Colin Farrell), to return from any number of seemingly last minute trips that extend over a fluctuating period. When the most recent trip results in Fowl Sr’s kidnapping by a mysterious individual known only as Opal Koboi (Hong Chau, uncredited), Artemis finds himself tossed into unknown waters as the stories of his youth, of myths and legends, suddenly become real and it’s in accepting them that he has the chance to save his father.
Having not read the books and coming to Artemis blind, this reviewer found Branagh’s film to be a thrilling adventure that maintains high momentum from beginning to end. Is this perfect? No. By keeping to a 95-minute runtime, there are several things that either don’t get explained or don’t get much room to be explored in order to keep moving the story to where it needs to be. This means that Nonso Anozie’s (Ender’s Game) Domovoi Butler does little to serve the story beyond assisting Artemis when he needs help. This means that the inclusion of Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) seems tacked on for little need. This means that the significance of Artemis’s black suit, while played as important, is shown in a heroic manner yet is never explained. Aspects like these are likely to draw ire from anyone who’s remotely familiar with the novels themselves as the details are clearly sacrificed for the sake of keeping the runtime tight.
However, at no time in the film was there a sense of confusion or disinterest. Branagh’s created worlds before (Thor (2011), Much Ado About Nothing (1993)) and what audiences are presented with within Artemis Fowl is a world I honestly want to explore, not because it taps into the accepted mystique of Ireland, but because the use of tools, tech, and people within the story feels exciting and original. Some of this, I’m sure, comes from the foundation created by Colfer, but there’s no denying Branagh’s influence in making the events, as they play out, cinematic. Several times while watching the film, I wished I could have seen Artemis Fowl on the big screen, in particular in 3D. Few films warrant the upgrade, with a scant few proving to be the exception not the rule, but the big confrontation toward the end of the film would surely benefit from being viewed on the biggest screen possible. Something about it taps into that “wow” factor that makes or breaks the imaginative nature of a kid’s film and Artemis Fowl is overflowing with “wow.”
The script by screenwriters Conor McPherson (I Went Down) and Hamish McColl (Paddington) kicks us off with Artemis’s world in turmoil and a few of the players, Sr, Artemis, Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), introduced within minutes before the whole tale is framed as having already happened and is being told by Diggums. This does require a bit more telling than showing, something that would drag lesser films, but it works here as Gad’s gravely delivery and strangely roguish charm is disarming enough in combination with the energy of the narrative to generate a smooth and jaunty experience. In addition to this narrative change, there is also a shift in how the story is executed versus the book, but someone, like this reviewer, wouldn’t notice and what’s created works. Instead of a story involving the Russian Mafia and a great deal of lawlessness, the film streamlines the Fowl family as a sort of neutral peacekeeper, allowing the perceived ruthlessness of the Fowls to make sense without making him outright evil. The manner in which Artemis engages with the other characters and enacts his plans is truly without concern for others outside of his small unit, something which newcomer Shaw wonderfully balances in his performance. Shaw conveys how Artemis is a child with incredible abilities and a great deal of self-confidence mixed with disdain for others, yet is aware enough to not discount those closest. This bit might ruffle the feathers of Fowl fans, but it’s worth noting that not all adaptations succeed by mirroring the source material. Various details were notoriously changed throughout the Harry Potter films, some which would be to the benefit and others to the detriment of the final two-part films, but it’s hard to argue (even as many are rightfully turning their backs on creator J.K. Rowling) that the films stand on their own separate from the books. In this regard, Branagh’s Artemis Fowl does exactly that.
In the movie business, shifting dates and last-minute embargoes often lead to speculation surrounding the success of a film. The truth is, all of that prediction is as trustworthy as any other superstition. Add in a move straight to a streaming service and the voices clamoring failure perk up even louder. Except a move to streaming doesn’t make Artemis Fowl a failure, it creates an opportunity. An opportunity to see just how significant the influence and reach of Disney is in a COVID-19 world. Will it make the kind of box office money it had a chance to make in theaters? Not likely. But that doesn’t mean a move to streaming will halt any future success. It works for Netflix — Mudbound (2018), Dolemite Is my Name (2019), The Irishman (2019), Da 5 Bloods (2020) — so why are folks so quick to jump on Disney for this choice? Instead of worrying about the bottom-line of a company not in fear of going into the red, gather your family together and go on an adventure filled with incredible locations, fantastical characters, and some truly fun performances. What you experience may just surprise you.
Available for streaming on Disney+ beginning June 9th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.