This review contains spoilers for Artemis Fowl (2020).
Fifteen years ago, if I was told that an Artemis Fowl movie adaptation was definitely going to happen, I would have been incredibly excited. But after seeing what I just saw, in this holy year of 2020, I’m not sure I would have wanted this.
Artemis Fowl is a series of young adult fantasy novels that began publishing in 2001 by Eoin Colfer. The story follows the adventures of a young, wealthy, criminal prodigy who gets tangled in the world of the hidden Fairy People as a result of his own selfish whims. As the books progress, Artemis reluctantly cooperates with the magical world to resolve greater conflicts that could prove disastrous for both human and Fairykind. The series is characterized and most memorable for its synthesis of technology, espionage, exploration, and magic. While Harry Potter was about a nerdy, bespectacled do-gooder wizard, Artemis Fowl had a villain with grey morality.
Having gathered a decently-sized following and fandom over time, it was inevitable for expectations to grow for a beloved series to get the movie treatment. Rumors of an Artemis Fowl movie in the works go as far back as 2003, and there were even reports that Colfer had already prepped a screenplay and chosen a director in 2011. (In the meantime, a graphic novel adaptation of the series began publishing in 2007, but it received a mixed reception.) In 2013, Walt Disney Pictures finally announced that a film was indeed in the works, but then it was stuck in development limbo for years, struggling to find a director and suffering from meddling from The Weinstein Company. After a ton of content was cut, based on these teasers, Disney+ quietly freed it from its cage on June 12, 2020.
But how does the final result of the Artemis Fowl movie actually fare?
The biggest problem with this film is that it is in Artemis Fowl in name only. From the get-go, even readers of the series may stare blankly in confusion as this adaptation has concocted an entirely original plot for the movie. Unfortunately, this new storyline is not even remotely good or polished. Although numerous elements have been drawn from the first two books as advertised, many things were changed, as to be discussed.
You see all these changes within the first 20 minutes. Josh Gad’s Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac Dwarven man, narrates the events of the movie, even though he never served such a role in the books. He’s interrogated about the crimes of Artemis Fowl Sr., our protagonist’s father, and lays out the father and son’s relationship. Fowl Sr. goes mysteriously missing one day, and the media believes it’s connected to the disappearance of several famous relics and the Aculos, a powerful artifact invented for the film. So the young Artemis is sent a cryptic message to retrieve the Aculos in exchange for his father’s life. In the books, the vanishing of Fowl Sr. is for a completely different reason, and Artemis’ mother is very much alive and serves a significant role to her son’s character development.
We do get a glimpse of the deep underground of Haven City, home to the secret civilization of the Fairy People and other magical folk that have been living under humankind’s noses for centuries. We meet LEPrecon and Officer Holly Short, a young Elven woman, who is sent to contain a troll; after completion, she runs off to find answers about her own father’s disappearance in connection to the Aculos. She ends up crossing paths with Artemis, who holds her hostage and tries to exchange her with LEPrecon for the Aculos. In the book of course, Artemis holds Holly hostage purely for money, not to save his father.
After a rather anticlimactic standoff and an attempted LEPrecon coup subplot that never gets properly developed, Artemis gets the Aculos and retrieves his father through its barely defined powers. He angers a pretty non-existent antagonist over it (who is not even significant until after the third book of the series) and Holly and Artemis establish a new allyship over their sad dad backstories. Meanwhile, Mulch is broken free from the cell that he has been narrating from and continues off on more adventures with the rest of the cast.
That’s it. That’s the movie. Fans who have been crossing their fingers for almost 20 years for an Artemis Fowl movie should be expected to be handed about 90 minutes worth of a whole lot of nothing and nonsense happening. The first book opens up with Artemis reconning in Vietnam, building up the promise of traveling the world, coordinating schemes, and hustling others for his family’s own gain. Artemis Fowl the movie, on the other hand, lacks the promise of the whimsy and expansive adventure the books convey, and is limited to a briefly seen, tiny quadrant of Haven City, a musty basement of some rusty cages, and the Fowl mansion.
In addition to the very limited setting and the convoluted, confusing story that didn’t need to be written with so much pre-existing material to already draw from, the film suffers from huge characterization issues. First off, Artemis Fowl is supposed to be an asshole. For real—straight up, he is simply a spoiled brat. Artemis Fowl is centered around a terrible child who often does things for his own gain, and only later does he eventually grow to become someone who works more selflessly for a change. Instead, the movie provides us with a generic, young boy with few notable qualities who’s thrust into a dangerous situation. This version of Artemis Fowl is more likened to a child Bruce Wayne who had early access to the digital toys that would later transform him into the famous, caped crusader.
Holly’s character is also watered down. Judi Dench’s Commander Julius Root (and her impossible-to-place accent) replaces the sexist, choking, militaristic Elven cop leaders in LEPrecon, who were integral to Holly’s character growth in the books. Holly’s own mom was also cut in favor of another dead dad subplot. (This movie simply hates moms.) Holly is also introduced with a distrust of humans in the book, and is not quite as approachable as she is in the film.
Surprisingly, Josh Gad’s performance as Mulch, in which they decided to make him look like a Hagrid-lite, is admittedly the best thing in this movie, despite a few of his own character’s inaccuracies. (Although a Dwarf, his character claims multiple times that he is “oversized” because for some reason there was no attempt at any visual technique to make him appear smaller, or properly cast someone else who would be of the appropriate size.) Gross humor is pervasive to this character, such as unhinging his jaw to dig quickly through the ground. Gad felt like the only one truly trying to act in character, while everyone else felt devoid of personality. Colin Farrell, who was portraying Fowl Sr., meanwhile seemed like he had no idea what this movie entailed, and was probably thankful that his character was missing for most of the film.
Overall, the visual presentation of the film is fine. Our window into the magical world of Haven City showcased a potentially vast world filled with goblins and mystics, but alas, it was too brief. Fowl manor is as ludicrous as one would expect, so there is some satisfaction to be found when it gets partially destroyed at the end. The impact of magic and the action we see are subtle and not too over-the-top like one would expect in epic genres.
The costuming of many of the characters, such as the LEPrecon units, look about right as mentioned, but there were a few other bizarre costuming choices. Butler, Artemis’ loyal bodyguard, is given something as arbitrary as bright blue eyes, but the film ignores Holly Short’s specifically described heterochromia and darker skin in the text. Butler’s real name was also revealed right away in the film and was treated as mundane, whereas in the books it was revealed to the reader much later on as something more sacred and secretive. There is also something uncomfortable with the casting of the Butlers with Black actors, as their family is described as having been subservient to the fair-skinned, blue-eyed Fowls for ages in the books.
Ultimately, it is usually not a great sign if a film looks decent as the bare minimum, and not much else. Not only did this movie try to compact multiple elements of the entire series all at once, it made strange arbitrary changes that would be a huge detriment to the rest of the series moving forward—granted, if a sequel happens at all. Even removing oneself from the original series and trying to view this movie in a self-contained lens, all it had to offer was a rather unexciting MacGuffin plotline with a very unmemorable cast.
Are big young adult fantasy series just always doomed to face the meddling of film executives or worse, the scrutiny fans? Even as successful as the Harry Potter movie franchise was, hardcore readers still had literal bones to pick with certain decisions made for the films. Disney’s own adaptation of Chronicles of Narnia may never properly finish. And let’s not even get started with Eragon. As Artemis Fowl fans are picking up what can be salvaged from the fallout, the Percy Jackson community is currently looking upon the wreckage with an open embrace to its refugees.
Disney’s Artemis Fowl is a convoluted mess that would upset fans and confuse newcomers. Thanks to numerous factors that were beyond the series’ own control that plunged it through development hell and back, the long-awaited, ideal movie adaptation that many have eagerly clamored for since the 2000s is still but a distant dream. At the very least, dissatisfied fans always have the original texts and a community to depend on. In fact, there has even been new material that may develop into its own series. If you are an outsider and if any of this has piqued your curiosity for Artemis Fowl at all, just pop open one of the books instead.