The words “Artemis Fowl” make up a significant chunk of the dialogue in Artemis Fowl. The title character, a child criminal mastermind introduced in a series of YA fantasy novels by Irish author Eoin Colfer, has few defining traits beyond how often everyone refers to him by his full name. Under Kenneth Branagh’s featureless direction, he’s just a bratty, self-involved heir. And the only interesting thing about this irritatingly smug and cheaply campy adaptation is how uninterested it is in its own source material. Artemis Fowl, the first Disney movie to have its theatrical release completely scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is bland and incoherent, with paper-thin character development, unimaginative world building, and a lot of daddy issues.
Set in Ireland, which the film mostly treats like a prop, Artemis Fowl opens with scandal. Antiquities dealer Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) has been linked to various high-profile thefts of the “rarest evidence of ancient worlds” from around the United Kingdom, and the media attention outside Fowl Manor is overwhelming. “How does it feel to have a criminal for a father?” a reporter yells at the 12-year-old Artemis (Ferdia Shaw). After that setup, Artemis Fowl travels backward in time thanks to narration from the dwarf Mulch Diggums, who is being questioned by the British intelligence service MI6. (Diggums is played by Josh Gad, doing an insufferable attempt at an Irish accent that’s very Darrell Hammond-as-Sean Connery.)
For the first half of Artemis Fowl, Branagh relies on clunky plot dumps from Diggums to tell us who these characters are. We see them only as the dwarf describes them—and that includes Artemis, the film’s ostensible hero, who’s introduced surfing while Diggums waxes rhapsodic about Ireland and magic and the magical beauty of Ireland. A generous interpretation of the structure would be that the PG-rated film is catering to a younger audience by mimicking the introduce-repeat-reaffirm narrative rhythms of children’s books. But that doesn’t make it feel any less repetitive and uninspired.
Once Artemis, played with stone-faced monotony by Shaw, learns that his father has been kidnapped, he realizes that all the Irish fairy tales he was quizzed on for years are real. Zooming into the pages of Artemis Sr.’s journal, Branagh transports us to a high-tech underground world where fairies, goblins, trolls, and other magical organisms coexist. Forced to live in secret, these creatures are desperate to find an acorn-shaped, nearly holy object called the Aculos that was stolen from them. The younger Artemis vows to find it and free his father, who’s being held ransom. Unfortunately, the fairies underground, led by Commander Root (Judi Dench, really laying the Irish brogue on thick), have sent their own officer after it, too. Her name is Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and she works for an agency called—wait for it—LEPrecon.
Artemis Fowl is at once overcomplicated, with its feuding fairy factions and allusions to the Fowl family’s grand patriarchal lineage, and underdeveloped. There is never a real sense of who this character is, beyond a rich kid who holds most everyone in contempt. Meanwhile, the villain, generically planning to “systematically wipe out all of mankind,” is never unmasked. And the film has an unfortunate tendency to sideline all of its female characters: During one climactic fight sequence, Holly gets snagged in a chandelier, leading Artemis to pick up her magical blaster and do the job of an 84-year-old officer in what is essentially the fairies’ militarized police force better than she can. Elsewhere, the film introduces Juliet (Tamara Smart), niece of the Fowl family’s butler, only to give her nothing to do but serve sandwiches and sit alone in Fowl Manor while everyone else goes on adventures—not the best way for the film to treat one of its only two Black characters.
At best, Artemis Fowl can be bizarrely cheesy. Take, for example, Judi Dench in a green cape and armor, pointy ears poking out under her bouffant hairdo, standing at the entry of her ship, growling, “Top of the morning.” More often than that, the film just dully swipes from the Hunger Games and X-Men franchises. The only real area to which Artemis Fowl seems to devote any consistent effort is the clearly Hagrid-derived Mulch Diggums, which allows Gad to amp up his shtick so severely that the rest of the film bends toward him, mostly for worse. Reverentially treated like a master criminal, given his own incongruous black-and-white interrogation sequences and snarky lines like “Most human beings are afraid of gluten. How do you think they would handle goblins?” Diggums takes up so much narrative space that he serves as more of a protagonist than Artemis himself. But then, when your main character is as dull as that snotty scion, even an irritating narrator who eats dirt and shits it out while burrowing through the Earth looks like better hero material.