Think Fairy. Think Again. An Artemis Fowl Review
If there was ever a movie I was destined to write about, it is this one. I’ve waited literally nineteen years to see this story adapted for the big screen.
When I first read Artemis Fowl in 2001, my copy of the book had an advertisement for the “upcoming” movie. A movie that never came. When Miramax and Disney split, and I heard that Artemis Fowl was one of the few titles they were fighting over, I waited, and I waited, while any plans that were in the works to get this story off the ground and into cinemas began to fizzle out.
But after countless delays, production hell, a pushed back release date, and a freaking pandemic, the day is finally here. Artemis Fowl has made it to our screens.
I’m very apprehensive. I’m writing this intro mere hours before I will get to watch it. I wish I was going to get to see it on the big screen, but I’ll take a Disney+ release over another delay.
I’m trying by best to temper my expectations; the trailers have looked… less than promising, showing off what appears to be a heavily altered story. But I’m firm in my belief that trailers are edited in such a way- and with limited material available- that the perceived lapses in the story might only be perceived.
I’ll see you on the other side. I am hoping that the following will be a good review.
(Spoilers ahead for both the movie and the book series)
Now that I’ve seen it, I can sum up my vast feelings about this movie in one, simple word:
It wasn’t bad. But that’s not the review I’ve wanted to give for an Artemis Fowl movie for the last two decades. And the movie fell into the same trap that so many other book adaptations have fallen into: straying too far from the source material.
Look, I get wanting to expand Artemis’ father’s role. I get that. And I was on board for it; the idea that we were going to start with Artemis as a somewhat normal kid and then, through the disappearance of his father, watch him become the criminal mastermind from the books was damn intriguing to me.
But it was clear from the first few minutes that we weren’t getting an adaptation of the book that I love so much. I mean, I’d say that Artemis Fowl is one of my top five favorite book series, and the first book went a long way to bringing it to that distinction. The author described the first book as “Die Hard with fairies” and that’s an apt description.
Perhaps the problem is Disney; in fact, I’m sure of it. While their Marvel movies have done exceptionally well, they’ve not had the best track record recently with book adaptations; just look at A Wrinkle In Time. In fact, because of that similar dud, I’m very hesitant to blame the director; as with Ava DuVerney, Disney attracted a top-tier director in Kenneth Branagh.
I just… I don’t get it. I don’t get why studios see the need to re-write the story when adapting a book to film. I understand that some parts may not work on screen as they do on the page, and I understand that sometimes, things have to be cut or streamlined. But Artemis Fowl completely abandons the plot line of its namesake novel. It does the exact damn thing that the horrible Percy Jackson adaptation did: it invents a McGuffin that the characters have to search for rather than building the plot another way.
In Artemis Fowl, it’s the Aculos, a mysterious- and never explained- artifact of the fairy world that is… a vague, powerful weapon but also a teleporter and also apparently the Book? (the Book, by the way, never makes an entrance, and we never see Artemis bargaining for the Book from a drunken sprite in Ho Chi Minh City in the summer- which is odd because, from the trailer, this scene was clearly filmed- and no scene in the entire flick could be described as sweltering, by anyone’s standards). It’s the most McGuffin-y McGuffin to ever McGuffin, and it doesn’t exist in any of the books, nor does anything like it appear in any of the books. It is here entirely to give a reason to the plot because they took the actual reason for the plot out of the damn movie.
Instead of having Artemis kidnap Holly in order to ransom her for the fairy gold (I’m not referring to them as the People, because the movie rarely, if ever, called them that), Artemis has to kidnap a fairy for… reasons… to help him find the Aculos, which he simultaneously knows his father stole and should be in his house but isn’t smart enough to check behind portraits to see if there’s a safe; book Arty would have known where every safe in the manor was, even if his parents never showed him. Even movie Arty should be this intelligent; in his first scene, he displays, verbatim, the intelligence the book character has, but that superior intellect is quickly abandoned as he spends the remainder of the movie either running through the house shouting variations of “dad” or spitting out vague dialogue that only furthers the generic plot and does nothing to inform his character.
Because the plot suddenly revolves around this Aculos, the story struggles to explain the rest of the plot points. To its credit, it at least tries to hit most of the major events of the book- we get the time stop, the troll fight, etc. and so forth. But it bungles every single one. Instead of the time stop having an expiration as it does in the book, Butler inexplicably shoots the time stop device with a magical arrow from Holly’s gun (I don’t remember the Neutrino 2000’s being able to shoot arrows… or turn into swords), causing vague damage that will eventually cancel the time stop.
Sidebar: I’m using the word vague a lot. And that’s on purpose. So much of this movie is vague; it feels like we are missing scenes, with characters inexplicably showing up in other locations without showing how they got there. At a measly runtime of one and a half hours, I’m certain that much of what Branagh shot hit the cutting room floor (in fact, most of what was featured in the first trailer is absent in the finished film). The result is a barely coherent, disconnected story. And the dialogue… this is one of the blandest scripts I’ve ever heard; none of Colfer’s signature wit was translated to the screen. None of the characters’ quirks- like Foaly’s penchant for aluminum foil hats- make appearances to flesh out the characters. In fact, Josh Gad seems to be the only one who is in any way familiar with the character he is portraying.
The movie sets up some of the best moments from the book- like Artemis specifying that while he is alive, no fairy is allowed to enter his house, only to forget to deliver on them; the movie omits Artemis’ brilliant method to escape the time stop unscathed, instead having it simply destabilize and… eat fairies?
Similarly, the troll scene- which I consider the climactic moment in the book, and one that leaves the reader in shock that any of the characters survived it- feels like a generic action sequence. Domovoi Butler’s near-death experience has none of the weight that it had in the book.
Oh, and yeah, we learn straight away that Butler’s first name is Domovoi; to someone who never read the book, that probably seems fine. But for a fan, realizing you’ve been robbed of the meaning behind Butler telling Artemis his first name in book 3 (which he would only tell his employer if his own death is imminent) is a gut punch. While I have no problem with the cast- I liked Judi Dench as Root, and Josh Gad’s Mulch Diggums is perhaps the only memorable character- the movie fails on every level to make us care about them. It fails to deliver on the relationship between Artemis and Butler, or the tension between Artemis and Holly. It fails to earn Holly’s eventual understanding of Artemis, and skips straight to friendship, which the keen reader will note that they were- at best- frenemies until the end of book 3. It utterly fails Juliet, introducing her purely out of the desire to include the character in a movie that could have otherwise survived without her, and then mislabels her as Butler’s niece, and not his sister. Artemis’ father replaces his mother’s arc in the first book, more or less, and his mother is written out entirely, apparently having died before the beginning of this film. I guess Disney never planned on making The Fowl Twins into a movie. The movie just does nothing to make you care about the characters at all, and these are characters that I care about a great deal.
While I did enjoy Josh Gad’s Mulch, making him the narrator was unnecessary, and results in Gad having to explain way too much of the story- because the actual scenes don’t do that at all. And so much of the dialogue is cliche and uninspired. That first scene with Artemis tricked us into thinking that the writers were paying attention to what Eoin Colfer wrote, but it was a cruel tease- the rest of the movie is Artemis by name only.
The movie’s biggest sin, I think, is Artemis himself. They tried to make Artemis relatable, and in the first book, Artemis is the villain. He’s the damn villain. He’s the antagonist. You don’t relate to him. That’s what made the book so interesting. He was a criminal mastermind. At twelve. And while the movie Arty calls himself a criminal mastermind, there’s barely any evidence to back it up. In the book, you don’t relate to Artemis until the very end. You don’t relate to Artemis until Holly does.
Holly, similarly, is give the short end of the stick, if you’ll pardon both puns. As with Artemis, it invents a backstory for her father (I honestly don’t remember if Beachwood Short was ever a character or mentioned in the books, but I don’t think he was, and if he was, he wasn’t a major plot point) that ties to Artemis’ father and the Aculos, and it gives her the thin thread of wanting to prove her father’s innocence for a crime that it takes the movie most of its runtime to tell us what it was. It has to give her this story to explain why she went to the place where Artemis and Butler kidnap her, because the movie omitted most of the backstory of the fairy culture, including the need to replenish their magic with the Ritual.
The movie makes no mention of Holly being the first female LEPRecon officer. It doesn’t bring in her struggles as an officer, nor does it bring in Artemis’ struggles with emotion and humanity. And inexplicably it adds Opal Koboi, the second book’s villain, as if she isn’t going to be appear often enough anyway.
The movie spends so much time rewriting the story to make some sense of the book’s course of events because the powers that be decided to reinvent the story rather than adapt it. And that brings me back to my biggest complaint regarding book adaptations. The reason why so many adaptations fall flat.
The book should be the roadmap for the writers and the director; the author’s already done the hard part. The author’s already written the dialogue and mapped the plot. All the filmmakers need to do is film it.
I mean, the reason the studio bought the rights to make the book into a movie is because they liked the book, right? For fans of the books, it isn’t enough just to see actors wearing costumes and calling themselves “Holly Short” and “Artemis Fowl.” It isn’t enough to see locations brought to life. Of course, that’s a big part of it. But the reason I’ve been waiting for this movie for nineteen years is because I wanted to see Artemis outwit the fairies at their own game, and I wanted to see the look on Root’s face when he realized that he’d lost. I wanted to hear the witty dialogue of Foaly and Holly come to brilliant life. I wanted to experience the troll fight scene the way Butler did. I wanted to see Artemis have his moment of humanity at the very end, when he traded half of the gold he had worked so hard to weasel the fairies out of in order to cure his mother’s psychosis.
I didn’t get any of that. I wanted the movie to showcase why this book is so brilliant, why it was a story worth eight (and counting) sequels, why this story is unique among so many kids fantasy books. I wanted the fantastic and fantastical characters to come to life.
And I got none of that. What we got was a bland fantasy that will undoubtedly get lost and forgotten in the deep wells of Disney+. What we got was a movie that I’m glad I didn’t pay money to see in theaters. What we got was a movie that Disney should be ashamed of.
I can only hope, once the bitter taste of this movie has faded a bit, that Disney tries again, or that they give the rights to someone who will honor the source material. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it has to be recognizable. Maybe a Disney+ TV series, like Percy Jackson is getting. D’Arvit, maybe Netflix or HBO or BBC should do it- look at the success of the second attempts at His Dark Materials and Lemony Snicket. Honestly, I think the world of Artemis Fowl would lend itself to animation as well.
I have possibly a pitiful hope that one day, Artemis Fowl will be properly adapted in some way. I’ve waited nineteen years, and what we finally got was not worth that wait. But I will wait nineteen more for something worthwhile. Because while this movie was a dud, the books it is based on are some of the best fiction I’ve ever read. For now, I will be grateful that I can revisit this story properly through the book, and through two separate graphic novels that have been released.
As far as this movie is concerned, well, I think Holly Short put it best when she said, “Stay back, human. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
With all that said, I’d like to end this review by highlighting a few (and I mean few) things I did like in this film.
Firstly, the cast. Like Inkheart before it, while it horribly adapted the book, it did cast the characters fairly well. Ferdia Shaw definitely comes off young and inexperienced- and perhaps I wouldn’t have minded if they’d aged up the character a few years to get a more experienced actor- but in the one scene that channels book-Artemis, he pulls it off well. Similarly, Laura McDonnell, while maybe a bit too young, brought the kind of energy and snark to Holly that I would have expected. If anything, I don’t think either were miscast, they simply weren’t given the chance to bring their talents to this film.
Josh Gad is well-suited to a character like Mulch Diggums, although Disney could have thrown some more money at this movie to use effects to make him shorter rather than coming up with the “tall dwarf” shtick. I mean, it was done in Snow White and the Huntsman and it was done in The Lord of the Rings, so I don’t see why Disney couldn’t manage it with one character here. Thankfully, the rest of the fairy population looks properly diminutive.
Everyone derided the casting of Judi Dench as Root, and I don’t think she did a bad job. Like with a lot of other characters, she simply isn’t given the room in this short film to own the character. While no doubt she can express the level of anger that Commander Root is known for- just watch her in any of the recent Bond films- she simply isn’t given the chance, and what anger she does present in the film comes off more as phoning it in. In my dream casting, I would have had J.K. Simmons in this role.
Similarly, while I love Nonso Anozie, I think he was miscast in the role of Butler. He does his best with the character and brings some levity, but unfortunately that is entirely out of character for Butler. I would have given this role to Dave Bautista, who I think would have brought more of the intensity that this body guard exemplifies in the books. And Colin Farrell does great as Artemis’ father, but he was horribly underutilized, and frankly should have just been saved for the sequel as he doesn’t appear at all in this book. Instead, they basically made him Arthur Spiderwick from The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Damn… Even when trying to talk about the nice things, I end up complaining. Back to being nice.
One thing I was greatly anticipating was getting to see Haven City come to life. And visually, it didn’t disappoint. I particularly loved the look of the Lower Elements Police uniforms. And the goblins looked like they straight up belonged in a better movie. My only real complaint here is that we didn’t spend enough time in the Lower Elements getting to know the world or its people.
I also honestly didn’t mind them creating more of a backstory for Artemis Sr. or even making him involved with the fairies; it makes sense that Artemis Jr. got his interest from somewhere, and I liked the idea of seeing Artemis become the criminal mastermind we meet him as in the book. But they just let this addition divert the entire plot line, which was a detriment to the success of this movie and pure negligence to the fans who have been waiting for this movie for so long.
Alright, I’m gonna stop here before I just start complaining again. I might watch it again, just to view it without the lens of long-time expectations, but I don’t expect it to change my opinion. I’m entirely let down, and I’m let down even more by knowing that Disney can and does make excellent adaptations all the time; maybe they should have sourced Artemis Fowl out to Kevin Feige or Pixar. Hell, even Lucasfilm probably could have done it better.
Studios need to learn a lesson with book adaptations. They need to learn how to make a faithful adaptation. And I’m not saying they have to be word for word- look at Harry Potter; those movies were all fantastic but they didn’t copy the books verbatim. They copied the heart and soul of the books and were faithful to the author’s original work, and Artemis Fowl by comparison is a soulless, faithless adaptation.
Based on the trailers, and based on the horribly short length of this film, I’m confident in believing there is another version of this movie out there. Whether it will be any better- or whether Disney will ever let it see the light of day- is entirely another matter. In interviews, Kenneth Branagh professes his love for Eoin Colfer’s books, and I’m determined to believe that he set out with the intention on making a good adaptation; he clearly has a long history of making good adaptations.
Even looking at this poster, which was released this week (and the slightly older one at the top of this review), you can see that Artemis appears to be holding the fairy Book (mimicking a lot of the different book covers) and not the Aculos; you’ll remember that the Book didn’t factor into the plot of the finished film. It wasn’t even mentioned, I don’t think. To me, this means there was at one time a somewhat more accurate version of this movie out there. At the very least, it confirms (along with possibly the worst marketing campaign since John Carter and dumping it on Disney+ rather than saving it for theatrical release as it is doing with Mulan and Black Widow) that Disney didn’t give a single shit about this movie. They didn’t even care enough to edit the marketing material to have Artemis hold a prop from the finished movie. And for a studio to sit on this property for this long only to not care about the finished product is absurd to me.
Maybe with the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League next year, Disney will open their vault to let us see what this movie could have been. In fact, if you bother to return to the Disney+ page for this movie, you’ll find a few behind the scenes features and a few deleted scenes- some of which (like the sprite and the Book) should have been left in the film. But as nice as it is to see some deleted scenes that are slightly more accurate to the book, at the end of the day they weren’t part of the movie that I watched; I’ve waited so long for this movie only to receive one of the worst adaptations I’ve ever watched. Maybe Artemis just wasn’t in Branagh’s wheelhouse. But I’m sick and tired of seeing studios make the same mistakes over and over again with the stories we love so much.
When I saw Percy Jackson or The Last Airbender or Eragon, I hadn’t yet experienced the source material. Watching Artemis Fowl, I finally understand exactly how those fans felt while sitting in the theater. It sucks.
I am planning on watching this movie again; I know, it sounds strange, but I feel that any movie you have expectations for, you should give it two viewings before casting final judgement on it, because of course your first experience is going to be colored by whatever you expected the movie to be. With a second viewing, I’ll be able to better judge the film for what it is. It still won’t be anywhere near perfect. It still won’t be a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. But maybe, over time, I will learn to like it- at least a little- for what it was instead of despising it for what it wasn’t. After all, I still watch Inkheart from time to time, too.
But I still want Artemis Fowl to get a better adaptation down the road. This story deserves so much more than it got.