Movie Review: Artemis Fowl (2020)

Artemis Fowl (2020) Artwork

Artemis Fowl (also known as Artemis Fowl: The Secret World) is a 2020 fantasy adventure movie which was released directly to Disney+ and was based upon the 2001 novel of the same name by Irish author, Eoin Colfer. It was directed by Kenneth Branagh, another Irishman, who is noted as the director of several adaptations of the works of Shakespeare including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996) as well adaptions of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022) and Marvel’s Thor (2011) just to name a few.

The film features the acting talent of Ferdia Shaw (in his debut movie appearance) as Artemis Fowl II, Lara McDonnell (known for her roles in The Delinquent Season, Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters and Love, Rosie) as Holly Short, Josh Gad (known for his roles in The Book of Mormon, Frozen and Beauty and the Beast) as Mulch Diggums, Tamara Smart (known for her roles in The Worst Witch, Are You Afraid of the Dark and A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting) as Juliet Butler, Nonso Anozie (known for his roles in Ender’s Game, Zoo and Game of Thrones) as Domovoi ‘Dom’ Butler, Colin Farrell (known for his roles in Phone Booth, The Recruit and Minority Report) as Artemis Fowl Sr and Judi Dench (known for her roles in James Bond, Shakespeare in Love and Cats) as Commander Julius Root. 

The movie follows the titular character discovering that not only does the world of fairies and magic exist but that it’s right below our feet, and he uses his intelligence to kidnap a fairy so he can rescue his dad from another fairy who is holding him captive in exchange for a powerful and mysterious artefact.

Okay now that we’ve got all of that boilerplate out of the way, it’s time to properly get into the review and my thoughts on the movie as a whole. Firstly, this movie has been in the works for a long time, as far back as 2001, off the back of the release of the first book, studios like Miramax were interested in making the movie. I remember hearing about the potential of a movie when I was searching about the series after reading the third book in the Artemis Fowl series, entitled ‘Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code’ which was released in 2003, although I probably read it closer to 2006. I was excited at the prospect, however despite a stream of highly successful books based on the property coming out every couple of years, with the longest gap being between Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian which was released in 2012 (and was the official end of the main series) and ‘The Fowl Twins’ which was released in 2019 (and was the start of a spinoff series of the same name, which follows Artemis’s younger Twin siblings and their adventures) they project to adapt the Artemis Fowl series into a movie languished in development hell for years, even after being bought by Walt Disney Pictures back in 2013 it still took them approximately 7 years to get the project completed. I personally think this is one of the reasons why the movie suffered, Harry Potter was successful in part because the core audience grew up with the series, the first book in the series was released in 1997 and the first movie in 2001, and we had regular updates until they finished their run in 2007 and 2011 respectively. This meant that anyone like me who was born in the 90s experienced each book and each movie, they became a part of my childhood, and as anyone who has read this piece I wrote a few years ago will tell you, it was a formative part of my young identity. However, and returning to Artemis Fowl, the movie missed the boat, it was released early enough that the books, much like Harry Potter, were and important part of the childhood, and to be honest the books still hold and I will be doing a run of review of young adult books over the next couple of months as well, so make sure and stay tuned but unfortunately, the movie was released more than a decade too late to capture the hearts and minds of the majority of the people who read that first book in the early 2000s.

The overall delays notwithstanding, it also suffered initially because of COVID-19 as well, it was supposed to have a big theatrical release, and I mean why shouldn’t it, the acting talents of Dame Judi Dench and Colin Farrell alone are enough to ensure a box office draw, plus despite my previous point about the core audience being too old for this movie now, which I do stand by, there’s also the immediate capture of people like me in their 20s who would have gone to see it at least for the nostalgia but because of COVID-19 the theatrical release was cancelled, and it was instead distributed to Disney+ instead much like the live action adaptation of Mulan. This has obvious long term benefits for Disney, and the availability of the movie, but It had to have impacted the ratings a little, you have people who like the traditional movie release structure, those who do not like Disney for whatever reason and don’t want to support their streaming platform, and simply those who were unable to watch it because of how it was distributed and therefore couldn’t see it either way. But COVID-19 has at least been a contributing factor to the issues with this movie that have netted it a low score of 19% on Rotten Tomatoes.

I tend not to let other people’s opinions influence my own though, for example two or three of my favourite movies, or at least ones which I enjoy immensely appear on Wikipedia’s worst movies of all time list, because I guess there’s no accounting for taste and besides I’ve always liked an underdog. But again, returning to the movie, I am honestly amazed not only by the sheer amount of changes but also, that according to this 2020 interview Polygon did with Eoin Colfer he completely stands by the changes. Okay I’ll be honest as say that I can totally imagine that regardless of how faithful an adaptation it was there would have been an element of the fanbase left unhappy, much the same way, and I’m sorry to continue to compare the two, that Harry Potter fans still manage to find issue with certain elements changed, left out or added to the movies that make them less like the books. I mean I suppose we can be glad it ended up as close as it did, according to this 2020 piece by SyFy, it could have been a lot worse. But just because it could have been worse doesn’t mean that I can’t be rightly irked by certain changes. I will say that I enjoyed the film overall, and it had much of the same building blocks of the movie, but much like Stormbreaker (re-titled Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker in America) the 2006 movie adaptation of the first Alex Rider book, of the same name which was released in 2001 it just didn’t quite measure up, it changed too much, added too much and didn’t capture the right energy. You can read more on my thoughts about the Stormbreaker movie here, and also you can find out what I thought of the 2020 Amazon Prime Video TV reboot of the Alex Rider series by clicking here. Oh and don’t miss my review of the 2006 adaptation of Eragon by clicking here

But enough pimping out semi related content. Yeah Artemis Fowl changed just too darn much, before reading on I would suggest that you be wary of *SPOILERS* I mean you can kind of expect that with a review but I will be talking about specifics so be prepared for that. I will say for the most part the director has explained the reasons for his changes but when you adapt a movie like this for the screen and make big changes there is of course going to be people who are unhappy with them.

So first off, they changed Artemis’s character at his core, I mean Ferdia Shaw did a great job in the movie, and for his debut film appearance it’s even more amazing. But this was not Artemis Fowl II, they got the look down, although that being said he didn’t put on his iconic suit until the majority of the way through the movie, but the character was radically different. They had a scene early on where they expressed Artemis’s raw intellect and superiority, arrogance even, through a conversation with a school therapist, but it felt like this was really to bring the onscreen persona into line with the books, especially since we really don’t get to see him be that cold, calculating or clever again throughout the movie, I mean in the books he uncovers a faerie hiding in the human world, bargains with her to get her copy of ‘The Book of the People’ and through sheer determination and his own intellectual prowess decodes the faerie language, known as Gnommish, whereas in the book, the allude to the book and to the language but cut out even an oblique reference to how he was able to translate it, and therefore denying themselves an opportunity to show off how smart he really is. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good performance, he was really likeable, which is part of the problem really, Artemis isn’t likeable, he’s spoiled, he’s a true genius and has poor social skills, this all combines to create a character that’s interesting to read about, especially as he evolves throughout the books, but who you wouldn’t want to spend any real time with, because simply put he doesn’t have equals in his own opinion. I mean they tried to make all that come across in the movie, but everything about it is different, in the books Artemis and his family, have been criminals for so long that it’s suggested that their family name fowl is the root of the word foul, meaning loathsome and rotten. In the movie, he and his ancestors are only criminals in the loosest sense, as they did not commit their acts of theft for monetary gain, but to preserve the balance of the fairy and human worlds, as well as to protect priceless objects from the hands of those who would misuse them. So the titular character doesn’t quite meet expectations, and that doesn’t bode well for the movie as a whole. Oh it’s not just personality, he’s also more physical, Artemis is described as small and weak, with his skin bleached of colour from hours in front of a computer screen, that coupled with his suit and slicked back hair gives him the appearance of a vampire. But he just isn’t a physical threat, and any of the times where he is in danger, without his trusty bodyguard Butler, he immediately realises that his intelligence and sarcasm can’t help him and he becomes, if only for the moment, humbled. He comes across like Alex Rider, but he’s not, he’s weak and reliant on hired muscle for the heavy lifting, very much like a Bond Villain, rather than as a young James Bond himself. It wasn’t a big issue and to be honest considering the other changes they made, it fit well with the narrative but it was another change that shifted the tone of the movie and distanced it more from the works it was based on.

It wasn’t just Artemis, others around him were changed, let’s go with the one that actually changed the least and go from there Commander Julius Root swapped genders, and they avoided directly saying her first name, Julius, although I have taken to calling her Judi Root instead. Despite changing genders, and losing the cigar habit the character was functionally identical to their book counterpart, and while I always pictured Root as J. K. Simmons, specifically in his role as J. Jonah Jameson in the live action adaptations of Spider-Man, I don’t think Judi Dench in this role changed it significantly, and the character more or less functioned as expected. Slightly more significant was Butler, sorry as the movie would have it, he’d prefer you call him anything but Butler, but returning to the point, in the books he is known only as Butler, for the majority of Artemis’s life he only knew him as Butler, and his first name was hidden, only revealed to his young charge (in the third book) when he was certain he would die, so to completely remove this from the narrative seems kind of pointless and actually robs the characters of a dynamic, in fact the character seems to be more of a manservant for Artemis’s father rather than him, and seems far closer to him as well, throughout the film because of its focus on the main character we honestly see very little real interaction between Artemis and Butler, but when Artemis Sr returns, the supposedly stoic bodyguard hugs him, something that breaks an implied etiquette between a principle and his bodyguard, and one which then book character certainly never would have done to either Artemis even though he in his own was too emotionally invested in his principle, treating him like a son at times. I felt like they did a great disservice to this character, he felt bland and two dimensional, which was through no fault of the actor, but sadly this is a kids movie, and the main character is a child, so the adults have to take a backseat. Now let’s talk about Mulch Diggums, I have to say I honestly really loved this portrayal of the character, was it strictly faithful to the character? No! Was it fun though? An emphatic Yes! I enjoyed his charm and energy, his sharp wit and the almost unconscious prescription to Dwarven habits such as pickpocketing and a lust for treasure. Josh Gad brought something to the role that made it perhaps the best part of the movie, and I think they knew that because technically the entire movie framework is centred around him telling a story to an unseen interrogator, and by extension, the audience. I will say a few times he delivered dialogue, often when shouting or otherwise pushing his voice where the gravel drops from his voice and all I can hear is Josh Gad, and it took me out of the moment, but for the most part he really lined up with what I wanted for the character. I will say however I felt the fact they changed him from a regular, bog standard Dwarf, and turned him into a human sized one, or as the movie would call it dwarfus Giganticus or more colloquially a ‘Giant Dwarf’ seemed kind of pointless. It was mostly to account for Josh Gad who while not overly tall at 5′ 6″ is obviously taller than you would expect for the average Dwarf. I will say though, they could easily have used tricks like forced perspective which was implemented in the Lord of the Rings franchise for the Hobbits and Dwarves rather than invent an entirely new background for the character. To discuss changes that bothered me less again for a moment, they beefed up the role of Juliet Butler, Butler’s younger sister. She’s sweet and age appropriate for Artemis, so that he has a peer who he can relate to. Last and perhaps most annoying, they inserted in a clunky MacGuffin in the form of The Aculos, it served no real purpose other than being an object of desire, it fixed all the problems like one big old deus ex machina and frankly because of this and the changes made to the central antagonist of the plot Opal Koboi, who managed to be awkwardly shoehorned in if I’m being honest, it just didn’t feel particularly climactic or interesting overall.

The movie itself was enjoyable, and visually beautiful for the most part, most of the characters regardless of their changes were enjoyable, and it was only through the changes that I had any real issue with them. The plot was easy to follow, if a bit lacklustre, and it wasn’t overly long and drawn out, to be honest it felt a little short if anything. I felt like the misused the Opal Koboi, boiling her down to an essentially faceless villain with no real personality besides being evil and wanting The Aculos, we don’t even get any real read on her and she is quickly eclipsed by the more insidious Briar Cudgeon’s power hungry villainy, and being honest the threat of the fairies in the form of the LEP. She was surplus to requirement as there were other more poignant, direct and interesting conflicts, and it felt a bit like the third Sam Raimi although on a smaller scale. I do admit exploration of her would be interesting in potential sequels but fundamentally she was beaten without any real hassle, with little to no real interaction with the main characters, and only had about five minutes of screen time, none of which would have been particularly memorable if not for the voice distortion she had going on. So with all things considered I think I’ll give it a 2.5/5 because it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me but there were things to be enjoyed about it.


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