Artemis Fowl (2020) – Review

Artemis Fowl is now streaming on Disney+.

By Palmer Rubin

Disney tried really hard to make it look like Artemis Fowl going straight to Disney Plus was an attempt to create a new revolution in entertainment. That turned out to not be true, the real reason is that director Kenneth Branagh had shit the bed so thoroughly that they needed to throw it at streaming so people couldn’t see the lousy numbers.

I couldn’t even begin to describe to you what happens in the film adaptation of the popular book series, due to the inexplicable choice to take the first two or three books in the series and combine their plots completely. Imagine the first three Harry Potter books combined and scenes from each interspersed at random, without the dynamite casting that largely saved those films, then add in so many inexplicably bizarre and off-putting choices in every capacity that the film ceases to make any kind of sense. It’s the big-budget version of those strange 3D animations of pregnant Spider-Man and Elsa on YouTube, something designed by an algorithm. When you design something for every possible audience, more than likely it’s going to become something unrecognizable to the human eye, something that looks and sounds like a film yet lacks any of the defining features that you would use to designate something as a film.

A failure of this multitude can go one of two ways. Either you have Tom Hooper’s Cats, where the result becomes so completely devoid of anything resembling basic humanity that it shifts around into being accidentally funny as all hell. Cats is a terribly made film in every capacity, but Cats is never boring. Artemis Fowl, despite sporting better graphics (and Judi Dench, 0 for 2 in her most recent acting roles), is arguably worse because it’s worse than bad: it doesn’t even have the gumption to be an entertainingly bad film. It is a movie so thoroughly uninterested in interesting anyone other than the million focus testing groups it was obviously submitted to that it ceases to be a film altogether, and becomes something altogether more sinister.

Artemis Fowl the character is two people, even as Artemis Fowl the movie thoroughly fails to read the pop culture room: Artemis Fowl is a father and a son, both part of an aristocratic billionaire family. The Fowl family are the oldest of old money, and the only other thing approaching protagonists is a multi-dimensional battalion of fairy cops called, without the slightest bit of irony, LEPRECON. Having your protagonists be billionaires and cops in 2020 is a massively tone-deaf move, but the books, for all their issues, had enough internal monologue of the billionaires and cops that they had more development than that. The Fowl family needs to give back a stolen artifact called the Aculos (a magical acorn that controls the universe, yes it’s the Infinity Gauntlet) to a fairy they stole it from, and said fairy is probably completely justified in her wishes to destroy the Fowl family over it. The books themselves portray the Fowl family as Harry Potter combined with Patrick Bateman, and since this is a Disney movie, Artemis Fowl must be the most perfect character and devoid of flaws.

You know your film has run into a problem when your character is introduced surfing mad waves and doing wild skateboard tricks off of dirt paths and old Irish ruins and what not, and you understand this is a studio executive’s idea of what appeals to The Youths, rather than the current wave of protesting and general anti-authority sentiment that is actually defining the Gen Z cohort. Artemis’ introduction, and the entire film for that matter, feels like that old meme of Steve Buscemi wandering into a high school holding a skateboard and saying “how do you do, fellow kids?” Except this time, it’s an actual child doing this.

To go on a bit of a tangent as to why this film doesn’t work, probably my “favorite” example of the trope of “ultra-smart child” is the abhorrent 2017 release The Book of Henry, where the main character is a supergenius who plays the stock market and tells off everyone else the entire time for being so dumb, and somehow we’re expected to sympathize with this child. That movie ultimately being written by a person self-described as an acolyte of Jordan Peterson does explain why it doesn’t resemble basic human expression in the slightest, and one fears that perhaps Mr. Peterson’s all-meat diet and lack of hygiene has infected one Kenneth Branagh, as Artemis Fowl feels like the fantasy version of The Book of Henry in every way. He’s a conceited trust fund jackass with an infinitely punchable face who I started actively rooting against as the film went on. I began cheering for Opal Kobold or whatever the fuck Hong Chau’s character was called (said fairy trying to get revenge on the Fowl family for stealing the Infinity Acorn) just because she was at least looking for reparations. That’s something of a sympathetic motivation, at the very least. The Fowl family doesn’t even have a good reason for stealing the Infinity Acorn, they’re just old money who can’t keep their accents consistent for longer than five seconds and apparently love stealing from fantasy creatures coded so obviously as indigenous peoples that it made James Cameron feel guilty at long last.

The books get around this because Artemis Fowl is an explicitly antagonistic character who gradually reforms, but Kenneth Branagh, in all the wisdom of a million milquetoast Shakespeare adaptations, decides that the ultra-smart condescending trust-fund kid is definitely what The Youths are craving. The character is literally infallible, there is not one moment in which Artemis Fowl makes a wrong decision or betrays a flaw, and thus the poor kid chosen to play him (called Ferdia Shaw) is given basically nothing to work with. I do apologize for saying he has a punchable face, as I’m sure he’s quite un-punchable as long as he’s not in the same room with Kenneth Branagh’s punchable direction. But all he’s told to do is sneer and strut around in fancy suits, and god help me, I think Branagh thought Draco Malfoy was the protagonist of the Harry Potter books. Then again, he did play Gilderoy Lockhart and maybe he mistook his role as the hero as well.

Another absolutely astonishing bit of logic that backfires at every opportunity is the film’s choice to completely double down on the watered-down Irish aesthetic that defines every St. Patrick’s Day party not celebrated by Irish people. The score is an utterly bizarre attempt to combine the average non-Irish’s person’s perspective of Irish music (you can immediately imagine it in mind’s eye) combined with the trademark Hans Zimmer-esque BWAAMMMMMMMMM and some early 2000s synthy tracks straight out of Metal Gear Solid games. I’m sure there are ways to combine those disparate elements in ways that would be pleasing to the ear, but this is not the case here. All three of those things, on their own, are quite lovely, and people with respect for each of those things could combine them into something lovelier. But here, it’s like mixing oil and water, and then dropping the oil and water into a barrel of gasoline, setting the whole thing on fire, and then wondering why your steak came out burnt as shit. The entire film comes off like a higher-budget Agent Cody Banks or any of the numerous early-2000s-just-after-9/11 kids films that enthusiastically bleated out how The Police State Actually Good, War In Iraq Good. This makes Spy Kids look coherent by comparison. You’ll be begging for Kangaroo Jack as soon as you’re finished with this one.

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But this inexplicable faux-Irish aesthetic thoroughly doesn’t work, and though I am not Irish myself, you can definitely detect when the people making this movie are A) definitely not Irish and B) are using American cultural osmosis towards Irish culture in lieu of what it must actually be like to be Irish in any part of the world. The comparison that comes to mind is an imagined similar movie but instead of the way Americans perceive Irish people, it’s the way they perceive Ashkenazi Jews like myself. There is literally a scene where Judi Dench walks out of a ship in the middle of a barely coherent action scene and says, in the exact same way Arnold Schwarzenegger would in his movies, “top of the mornin’ to ya,” to nobody in particular. That’s the kind of thing you’re going to see a lot. It’s confusing the Lucky Charms Leprechaun for actual culture or white men with dreads doing yoga with henna tattoos and never showering. Now imagine the exact same thing, except Judi Dench is wearing armor based off the design of a tallit and tefilin and she says, in the same gravely baritone, “oy vey, motherfucker.” Basically the same vibe. That they did this with a culture as thoroughly homogenized and assimilated as Irish culture is probably the only reason there won’t be a million thinkpieces on this, and then I think about how the live-action Alvin in the Chipmunks awkwardly tried to make the CGI monstrosities into the animal equivalents of Vanilla Ice and I realize just how much more tone-deaf this movie could’ve been.

But apologies to Irish people, they did y’all dirty with this one.

Probably the most amount of entertainment you’ll get out of this is from Judi Dench, who sounds exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies for whatever reason. You’ll also get entertainment out of the most thoroughly miscast part I have seen in a movie in a long time. Josh Gad is cast here, inexplicably as a, and I quote, “giant dwarf.” In the books, his character, Mulch Diggums, is a dwarf. But in the movie, they have cast Josh Gad alongside a bunch of actors played by little people, and I wouldn’t comment on this more if they constantly make jokes about how big he is compared to the rest of the little people in the scene. This happens so often that it becomes thoroughly uncomfortable, and it gets worse still with his voice, which is a cinematic creation I have never experienced before or since. I hate to say this, but this film, in spite of how much better it would’ve been as an outright comedy, both tries incredibly hard to be this grimdark, self-serious entity while also having an actor incapable of anything outside of comedy as the film’s most grimdark and self-serious character. The framing device for the film (definitely not in the books) is Josh Gad telling the story of Artemis Fowl while in what is essentially a heavy security interrogation room. This means you have Josh Gad’s attempt at a voice somewhere between Batman and Hagrid talking about the whimsical magical beings of Ireland while trapped in what is essentially a violation of the Geneva convention. It is the most utterly confusing way to try and begin a kids movie with a pleasant voiceover from that voice in a literal torture chamber. I know that what I tell you sounds like I’m just bullshitting you, but this is the literal framing device for the movie.

What makes it even worse is when, three-fourths into the movie’s runtime, Josh Gad finally gets to actually have a scene of his own where he’s not talking to either the person about to torture him to death or the audience (the film switches perspective on a dime), and he’s hired by Judy Dench’s Gollum-voiced Power Rangers commander to dig into Artemis Fowl’s home during a siege after he inexplicably kidnaps a fairy in order to get access to the magical device he has to give to Villain Fairy that was already in his house the entire time, which is what you get when you try to combine the plots of three books into one and have their respective scenes and character combined without any thought put into it whatsoever. Anyway, I had completely forgotten that in the books, Mulch Diggums doesn’t just dig with his hands to get to places, he spontaneously eats and shits dirt in order to do this. So I actually yelled out in surprise when Josh Gad’s mouth distends from his body in an image that’s basically Pennywise with a beard, begin eating his way towards Fowl Manor, and projectile shits directly into the mouth of another fairy as he goes. He does all this with the loudest nastiest farting sound effect you have ever heard, and all of this happens in a Disney movie, and I am almost certain nothing but the actual digging itself happens in the books. It’s like Kenneth Branagh went on a coke binge and watched a few John Waters movies before they filmed that scene, then mistook John Waters’ work as being not some of the earliest examples of subversive queer cinema but as kooky studio comedies.

Along with that and an inexplicable scene where Mulch Diggums turns a goblin into a living grenade by forcing magical fire up his nose, you are again going to wonder who exactly this movie is for and which algorithm suggested projectile shitting is exactly what appeals to The Youths in this day and age. There hasn’t been a Jackass movie in over ten years so I’m honestly not sure. And yes, I pinky promise I’m not making these scenes up to mess with you. I am almost in awe at what kind of mental process it took to imagine those things into being and to have whatever executive give the go-ahead. I kept thinking about all the think pieces about how the recent Dolittle movie’s climax literally is Robert Downey Jr sticking his hands up a dragon’s asshole, and suddenly the most vapid blockbuster entertainment of this year has a weird pattern. From the way the film is being savaged by fans of the books, I imagine the books probably didn’t feature such ludicrous moments.

There’s so much more than just that, like the really tone-deaf choice to whitewash Holly Short, a character explicitly described as having darker skin in the books, and to cast someone the same age as Artemis in spite of the character in the books being fully grown, so that way Artemis and Holly can be romantically involved (despite never having been love interests in the books). The actress playing the part, Lara McDonnell, is probably the strongest performance in the entire film, even as it stands out that she is the only child cop in an entire division of fairy cops. But it arrives to Lara McDonnell the same way it arrived to Artemis’ entire characterization being defined by surfing and skateboarding in Irish ruins alone, focus tested to oblivion. Both that and the choice to cast a white woman in the part is not the move, nor is the part to have the only nonwhite actors in the movies playing butlers, maids and the eventual villain of the piece now that Artemis isn’t allowed to have the only distinctive quality that made the books fun to read when I was a kid. This might make the Republicans and Tories of the world a little mad (I can hear the impotent bleating of “forced diversity” all the way over here), but Gone With The Wind is not a movie we strive to follow. It’s a deeply cynical move the movie pulls in how it tokenizes pretty much every nonwhite actor in the film. Again, as a white reviewer, I don’t think it’s my place to try and talk over other people’s experiences in a film where the main characters have the same skin as me, but it’s definitely something worth noting and something that should have been dealt with with a lot more tact, understanding and compassion. The cast of the movie is largely so shite that the usual excuses to when this sort of BS is pulled can’t even work for this one.

Arguably as tone-deaf as the casting is the way in which high fantasy tropes are used to massively over-simplify what was a series of pretty convoluted books, especially as conversations as to the deeper subtext and meaning of those fantasy tropes become more prevalent. Artemis is able to outwit pretty much every other character in the movie without a single stumble because he relies on his father’s old storybooks on Irish folk tales. Dwarves are obsessed with treasure, fairies inexplicably have the same conventions as vampires since they have to be directly invited in somewhere. Judi Dench barks out nonsense about “fairy rules” every five seconds that feel like contrivances, and while the book version of Artemis Fowl was actually coming up with schemes and not relying on hastily made-up magic systems, the movie version reads the passage his father wrote him, does exactly that, takes advantage of whatever fantasy trope he reads, and then that fantasy creature does exactly that. If you’ve played a game of Dungeons & Dragons in the last few years, you’ve heard a lot of arguments about exactly how reductive that game’s system is, especially as it pertains to racial bonuses. The big argument is about orcs (luckily not found here), and how they’re automatically working with a disadvantage in their intelligence stat. Now, as much as that could set me up to saying this film has a negative intelligence stat (and it does), that same logic applying to this film is just…very grody. Mulch Diggums is a hairy, shifty dwarf obsessed with treasure and is obsessed with betraying and taking advantage of people. Artemis reads the storybook, sees this about dwarves, and this happens. And again, this is the same year where JK Rowling is being slammed for using anti-Semitic stereotypes for goblins when she’s not having transphobic meltdowns on Twitter. if even the former queen of children’s entertainment is getting her comeuppance, I’m not sure Kenneth Branagh can get away with it either. Now, to be fair, I don’t remember the books being quite this binary in the way the morality of its fantasy world operates. It’s the assertion that because you are a thing, then you must be this, and therefore any bad thing I do to you is justified. Again, connect the dots to our current discourse outside of the world of film and you can see how utterly regressive this is in the context of how easily the movie plays itself out. Of course, Artemis can use all the fairy weapons with no training… connect the dots. Of course, Artemis being the Mary Sue that everyone accused Rey of being for years just puts the icing on the proverbial cake.

In short, Kenneth Branagh should be ashamed of himself, pretty much everyone associated with this film should be ashamed of themselves, and in the midst of JK Rowling destroying all the goodwill she built up throughout my lifetime in a single fell swoop, maybe we need to stop making fantasy movies for a while till we’ve had some important conversations and stopped making it extensions of imperialist rhetoric and what have you. Fantasy is hella reductive right now, as a genre. It’s a broken genre. It needs to be fixed. Artemis Fowl as a book character was also reductive, but not to this extent. This makes The Last Airbender look good by comparison, it makes M. Night Shyamalan look like an Academy Award winner. Christopher Paolini is breathing a deep sigh of relief.

And if Josh Gad doesn’t win a Razzie for perhaps the most spectacularly awful performance I have seen in a motion picture this year, well, we’ll have to live with that. Being Mulch Diggums in this movie is already a punishment worse than death. and not only did he projectile shit into a fairy’s mouth, he projectile shat all over our souls.

I give Artemis Fowl a D-.

Artemis Fowl movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert