Kenneth Branagh directs an adaptation of Eoin Colfer's first novel about a boy genius's adventures in the world of fairies.
It came as something of a surprise when, as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Disney decided to buck the trend of major studios shifting release dates and announced its latest family-friendly blockbuster Artemis Fowl would be made available on its Disney+ platform.
After all, here was a film with all the ingredients to become a pre-Christmas treat in the slot once occupied by the Harry Potter films throughout the 2000s. Director Kenneth Branagh adapting the first of Eoin Colfer's beloved young adult fiction novels. A cast featuring Judi Dench, Josh Gad, and Colin Farrell. A story about a boy genius who finds himself drawn into a world of magic and fairies that intricately draws on myths and legends.
However, once you see Artemis Fowl, you can understand why it's found itself confined to the lesser surroundings of Disney's streaming service.
The plot is simple enough, despite its fantastical aspirations - 12-year-old Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), the scion to a dynasty of criminal masterminds, finds that his super-rich master criminal father (also named Artemis, played by Farrell) is missing. In order to search for his dad, he must look through his journals and the artefacts he has accrued in their mansion on the Irish coast, and discovers the truth about a hidden world of fairies.
Meanwhile, in the underground fairy world, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), a captain in the Lower Elements Police reconnaissance force (LEPrecon), has also lost her father - permanently.
But she is desperate to prove he is not a traitor and gets her chance when her commanding officer Julius Root (Dench) sends her up to the human world to capture a rampaging troll.
While searching for the truth about her dad, she travels to a tree near Artemis' home, where the young genius and his servant Domovoi (Nonso Anozie) have set a trap to capture her.
As it turns out, at the centre of both mysteries - and central to the embattled Commander Root keeping her job - is a mislaid fairy artefact, the Aculos, that could destroy the fragile peace between the fairies and humans if it falls into the wrong hands.
Helping them all, when not incarcerated for his crimes, is an overgrown dwarf with kleptomaniac tendencies, Mulch Diggums (Gad).
So far, so Harry Potter. But while Colfer's novel is a worthy rival to J.K. Rowling's wizarding world in weaving myth into a contemporary fantasy, Artemis Fowl, the film, cannot hold a candle, let alone an Aculos, to that franchise.
For a movie which leans hugely on special effects, and which is set against sweeping landscapes, it feels strangely claustrophobic.
Despite our protagonists having parallel quests, the plot and characters appear to go nowhere - literally or figuratively.
Artemis is a strangely cold character, neither misunderstood underdog nor ubercool youngster, despite attempts to signify the latter by having him surf and don fairy-blocking shades that make him look like he's joined the Men in Black equivalent of the Boys' Brigade.
It also seems a strange decision to hire an accomplished rogue like Farrell to play a master criminal then leave him largely on the sidelines.
Considering Branagh's expertise as a storyteller - having helmed everything from Shakespearean epics to the first Thor movie - there are also strange and confusing missteps.
One moment, when Dench slips into Irish caricature by saying the words "Top o' the morning" like a reveller embracing non-existent Celtic roots on St. Patrick's Day, sticks out like a thumb that's been bashed by a shillelagh.
But there's also just a lack of coherence to setpieces and action that look pinched from stronger science-fiction tales and tacked on to a pretty threadbare story.
The dark forces seeking the Aculous also remain strangely shrouded, and so its villain is never a truly threatening or compelling presence.
Saving the film from total disaster are McDonnell and Gad - with the former admirably elfin as Holly and the latter providing some amusing comic relief.
However, if Artemis Fowl is to continue as a serious franchise and spawn more films when the cinemas reopen, it will need to become far more than this shoddy first instalment that would have been a turkey if Disney had given it a cinematic release.
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