Disney’s ‘Artemis Fowl’ Is an Ugly Flop That Will Infuriate the Books’ Fans
After 20 years of development hell and an unceremonious dump onto a streaming platform, just how far Disney strayed from the beloved books is the least of the film’s problems.
Surely there is a metaphor to be inferred from an unfortunately memorable scene in Artemis Fowl in which dwarf burglar Mulch Diggums, played by Josh Gad, unhinges his jaw, nosedives into the dirt, and plows through Ireland’s precious earth with his mouth, projectile defecating it out the other end—as unexpected an image as there’s been this year in a family film.
The comparison might be seen as apt for one of the hottest modern young-adult book series, which was scooped up for a film adaptation in 2000, only to nosedive into a whopping two decades of development hell that involved the meddling of Harvey Weinstein, a Mickey Mouse-enforced rewrite of the entire story, relentless release-date shifting, a $125 million budget, and Dame Judi Dench being forced to wear pointed fairy ears—only to be pooped out with an ignominious release on Disney+.
Don’t get me wrong. A pivot from theatrical release to streaming debut in the age of COVID-19 should not always be interpreted as a sign of a studio’s lack of faith in a film, or of poor quality. Except in this case, it absolutely should.
Artemis Fowl’s arrival this week, of all weeks in the world of young adult fiction, is particularly auspicious.
It premieres the same week that Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson series which was adapted into notoriously horrible films, admitted on Twitter that the movies put his life’s work “through the meat grinder.” And it’s the week when Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling went on a crusade to legitimize bigoted and dangerous views about transgender people, repulsing fans and tarnishing their relationship to the works they held so dear.
So it goes without saying that the lens—“in what ways has this film adaptation bastardized the book readers loved?”—is in even sharper focus now than it might have already been with Artemis Fowl, a film that had been plagued by so many reports and rumors of production false starts and missteps that, sight-unseen, it was assumed to be dead on arrival.
Now that we’ve seen it, we can confirm the decease.
Here is what the film is about, which is an important distinction considering the fan controversy over how it departs from Eoin Colfer’s book.
As is explained through narration from the aforementioned Diggums, with Gad in Hagrid drag and doing a Bane voice, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is an unusual young boy, a child genius—winning architectural prizes at age 9, cloning goats at 10—who lives in Ireland in a manor that houses the antiquities and rarities that his father, Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell), collects.
School counselors attempt to diagnose his strangeness. Is it that his mother died while he was young? (Ah, Disney, never change.) Or is it because his father is often out on adventures, leaving him alone in the care of his butler, named Domovi Butler (Nonso Anozie)? Artemis posits it’s simply because he’s smart.
While he’s not scouring the world curating artifacts, Artemis Senior is curating fairy tales that he relays with the utmost seriousness to his son. It’s important that Artemis Junior learn everything there is to know about fairies, banshees, leprechauns, sprites, and goblins because, Senior fears, the day may soon come when the knowledge will be necessary.
That day arrives, as Artemis Senior disappears at the same time he is accused of stealing the Rosetta Stone and the Book of Kells. In the midst of all this, Artemis Junior receives a ransom call from an evil fairy—yep, they’re real—holding his father hostage. “Everything I’ve told you is true!” young Artemis hears his dad bellow, as the fairy tells Artemis he needs to procure a precious, potentially dangerous fairy treasure if he hopes to save his father.
Led by Judi Dench as Commander Julius Root—the Oscar-winner seemingly tickled by whatever the hell is happening around her in this movie—the fairies mobilize to stop Artemis, worried what will happen if the treasure falls into the wrong hands. It all leads to an epic fairy battle in which Artemis, Domovi, Diggums, and a rogue fairy named Holly (Lara McDonnell) work together to try to rescue his father.
This is a slight, kid-friendly fantasy movie featuring a young superhero protagonist. That is not going to make fans happy: the Artemis Fowl of the books is not a young superhero, but a ruthless criminal mastermind. Over the course of the Artemis Fowl series, the characterization softens, but what made the books unique is that they begin with Artemis as a child villain.
A trailer for the film adaptation warned fans this was going to happen, and the outpouring of rage was summed up in Slash Film: “Now Artemis Fowl, rather than being the antihero arc all us book readers know and love it to be, is… a lame superhero movie? His fairy foes (Holly and Mulch) are now his allies for some reason, and Butler is his mentor who trains him to be a defender of fairies? It looks cheesy and bad, and no, you can’t even win us over with a surprise Colin Farrell cameo as Artemis’ dad.”
The creative decision to rewrite the character of Artemis betrays the film’s core audience, and strips the film of anything that might have made it interesting.
Sometimes long, dramatic roads to production can hone just the right creative vision for a difficult-to-adapt product. (See, for example, Chicago.) Other times, they produce a garish quilt of vague ideas introduced and abandoned by the dozens of studio execs, directors, and screenwriters who got their hands on the sewing machine along the way.
The Disney-fied rewrite not only sanitizes any edge or grit from the film, but muddles the fast-moving plot to the point that it is nearly impossible to keep track of—almost like a four-hour movie was hacked down to 90 minutes, with logic left to fend for itself.
A similar misstep to the one made in the recent flop Dolittle also plagues the script, in which pandering jokes meant to tickle a younger audience are sprinkled throughout like jarring grenades of corniness, including one I’m sure the kids will go crazy for about humans being afraid of gluten.
Most glaring, however, are the visuals. This is a film about fairy wars and hidden worlds, and is obviously going to be heavy on CGI. This is a story that centers around the lilt of “The Irish Blessing,” that frolics through a world inhabited by every great fantasy and folklore creature, and has Disney imagineering at its disposal. How confusing, then, for it to manifest a visual aesthetic that is so… ugly.
The world-building is dark and uninventive, the humor off-puttingly blunt, and the perspective so bland that there’s nothing about the universe of Artemis Fowl to which one would want to be whisked away. Which is a shame. Even if the goal is to retrofit Artemis Fowl to the vision of a modern-day Spy Kids, what’s crucially missing is any sense of that franchise’s whimsy. Or, more importantly, adventure—an unforgivable omission of spirit when you consider, again, we are talking about fairies.
Vulture published a detailed tick-tock of all the twists and turns of Artemis Fowl’s journey from the presumed next Harry Potter franchise to its quiet launch on Disney+. It speaks to how jumbled and miscalculated the film turned out to be—a real letdown when the world could use a little distracting magic and fairy-tale escapism.