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Non-Review Review: Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl is only ninety-three minutes long, but it feels much longer. In more ways than one.

As with Scoob! or Trolls World Tour, there’s something slightly cynical in releasing Artemis Fowl direct to streaming. The film feels like it might have wallowed in a theatrical release, with little to distinguish it from other young adult adaptations like The Maze Runner or The Mortal Engines. Although derived from a series of beloved children’s books, the cinematic adaptation of Artemis Fowl was never going to be this generation’s answer to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or The Hunger Games – despite the belaboured sequel hooks.

Fowl play.

The most interesting question that occurs when watching Artemis Fowl is at what point this became clear to the production team. Artemis Fowl has the look and feel of a movie that has been fed through a meat grinder. It is appreciably shorter than most would-be tentpoles, even though there is a seemingly continuous voice-over delivering reams of exposition. The plotting is haphazard. The character arcs are broad. There is a palpable sense that something happened in getting from page to screen, and the real mystery is where in the process things went so wrong.

Watching Artemis Fowl becomes almost an interactive mystery of itself. Was the project always this disjointed and chaotic, or was that something that happened in postproduction? More than that, was that process something that happened before or after Artemis Fowl was earmarked for a streaming release? When exactly on the creative process did everybody working on Artemis Fowl just give up completely?

A flying finish.

It seems unlikely that anybody will ever really know what happened to Artemis Fowl, creating a mystery worthy of its central character. Artemis is introduced talking to a counselor, and skillfully deducing that the antique chair in which the old man takes so much pride is really an elaborate forgery. It might be worth asking Artemis himself to sit down with the film and try to detect all the strange and weird disconnects contained within its runtime.

To be fair, the problems with Artemis Fowl begin with the script. The film has that weighty feeling of an overly faithful adaptation, a script that prides itself in transposing rather than translating, in capturing so much of the source material rather than actually understanding its essence. The film is powered by a framing device that finds the “giant dwarf” Mulch Diggums interrogated about a daring heist. Diggums proceeds to relate the plot – and provide requisite exposition – to the audience at home.

Fairy cop.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a framing device. Plenty of classic films unfold in flashback, and are drawn from the mouths of unreliable narrators. However, the framing device in Artemis Fowl feels like it belongs in a book rather than a film. It eliminates a lot of tension, and serves primarily as a mechanism to dump information on the audience at a suffocating pace. It saves the script the inconvenience of having to parse what information is important and then delivering that exposition in an organic sort of way.

Then again, the framing device also allows for the somewhat ruthless edit of the film. Whenever the plot needs to jump along or skip a story (or emotional beat), Diggums can casually explain something to the audience that takes them from one scene to the next. There’s a laziness to this, an emphasis on telling rather than showing. More than that, on deliberately and pointedly avoiding showing, even when it would be both more convenient and more logical.

Judge, Judi and executioner.

The writing is frankly terrible. Artemis Fowl is full of exposition explaining how intelligent its title character is. To give a sense of the level at which Artemis Fowl pitches itself, it uses the fact that he can play chess to establish that Artemis is smart. Diggums is intended to be a comic relief character with an attitude, but he keeps pausing to remind the audience how clever Artemis is, even when he’s being antagonistic. “If I was going to be manipulated, might as well be by the best,” Diggums explains. “And make no mistake, the kid is the best.”

The awful writing carries over into the dialogue. Artemis Fowl is an incredibly corny piece of work, but one that repeatedly gestures towards profundity. “You believed in the goblins,” Artemis’ father remarks, trying to repair his damaged relationship with his son. “You believed in the Hill of Tara.” Artemis replies, “All I really want, is to believe in you.” At one point, Artemis confronts a captive fairy. “My father was kidnapped,” Artemis tells her. “My father is dead,” Holly replies, as if stuck in some weird game of oneupmanship.

Making room.

It isn’t just that Artemis Fowl ladles on unnecessary exposition like syrup on a pancake, the exposition itself is terrible. At one point, the fairies dispatch Holly to investigate a crime, only for Briar Cudgeon to protest that her father was a traitor. “Beachwood Short used his magic to steal the Acculous from us, which – need I remind you – is the most precious artifact in our civilisation?” he demands of Commissioner Julius Root. It’s the “need I remind you?” that makes it especially egregious, one step removed from “as we both know.”

Artemis Fowl is so full of characters telling one another what they already know that there’s little room for actual storytelling. Eoin Colfer has described the book as Die Hard with fairies”, but it takes the film almost half of its runtime to reach that starting premise. Instead, the bulk of the film is given over to characters talking in clichés. (After his father goes missing, one newsreader signs off his report with, “The remaining question: Artemis Fowl – antiquities dealer or criminal mastermind?”)

Broken arrow.

There are shadows of good ideas tucked away within Artemis Fowl. It might be fun to have a bunch of fairies who behave like cliché movie cops. “I’ll have her badge for this,” Commissioner Root complains when Holly (inevitably) goes rogue. However, there’s no time to ever actually appreciate anything within Artemis Fowl. The movie has two gears: exposition and setpiece, with no room for character or wonder.

After all, Artemis Fowl is the story about a twelve-year-old boy who discovers that all the fairytales that his father told him are real. This should be wondrous and magical. There should be a big moment in which Artemis realises that the world is so much bigger than he thought it was. However, Artemis Fowl has neither time nor use for wonder. Instead, the film cuts from a notebook page warning “time to believe” to CGI-driven exposition about “Haven City, home of the fairies.”

Fairy fortifications.

There is something interesting in the film’s weird fetishisation of Ireland, particularly given that the book was written by an Irishman. “Artemis loved Ireland,” the audience is assured by Diggums, who also informs his audience that the story takes place in “the most magical place on Earth – Ireland.” Artemis also “designed the Dublin Opera House”, while Judi Dench gets to affect an Irish accent that wouldn’t feel out of place in a gritty nineties thriller about mad Irish bombers.

Artemis Fowl is a mess of a film. It’s disjointed and unfocused, and feels like a movie that has been heavily cut down from its initial ambitions, even if it’s not exactly clear when this scaling down took place. It’s difficult to imagine Disney allowing a film like this to open in a summer blockbuster slot, even allowing for misfires like Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. The greatest mystery around Artemis Fowl remains whether it was always the kind of film that would get thrown away on streaming, or whether it was cut that way after the decision was made.

8 Responses

  1. “The film has that weighty feeling of an overly faithful adaptation”

    Afraid, you’re wrong on that point, based on the trailers – the movie seems to have only the title and character names in common with the book it’s allegedly adapting.

    • Have to agree with this, Firebird. I have seen those trailers too, and read and loved the books. The trailers certainly didn’t shout “faithful adaptation” to me.

      But thank you for the warning, Darren! I wasted a whole morning of my life that I will never get back and $17 for a ticket to see the movie adaptation of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, a dreadful Americanised version of a classic British novel. Never again! I’ll go back and reread Artemis Fowl instead.

      • That’s fair. As I said, was just going through the feel of the film. There’s a lot of exposition and mythology. And it’s just dumped on the audience.

    • Ha! Fair point. That said, the movie has that “leaden with exposition” quality that I expect of a young adult adaptation.

      • Ironically most of the exposition or mythology dumped on the audience is mostly inaccurate and contradicts what’s in the books. (Which sadly is common to most book to film adaptations – as few tend to resemble their source material outside of basic premise and character names).

        And if you wanna be pedantic technically Artemis Fowl isn’t a young adult adaptation, as the books are aimed at ages 8-12 demographic (what Americans apparently call Middle-Grade Literature, but the term doesn’t seem to have migrated to over here in the UK), whereas Young Adult Literature is usually aimed at around readers aged 15 and older.

  2. I used to love reading those books when I was younger. I can confirm that the movie takes everything interesting about the source material and guts it. There was no commenting about the natural beauty of Ireland in the book.

    The original book is basically a chess match between magical creatures and a 12 year old genius with near infinite resources and his unbeatable-in-combat butler. And that genius is unequivocally the villain of the piece. He knows who his father is and what he’s done–and his motivation is that he aims to restore the family fortune by kidnapping Holly Short, a fairy, and ransoming her for 1 ton of 24 karat gold.

    Doesn’t that sound a little more interesting than the film we got?

    • It certainly does.

      Does the book feature a giant dwarf who literally sh!ts dirt?

      • No and Yes.

        Mulch Diggums was a character in the books, but he was just a Dwarf, not a Giant Dwarf. Giant Dwarves weren’t a thing in the books (also one thing that I was confused about regarding the film was whether Giant dwarves were meant to be a separate species from regular Dwarves, or if it was some sort of condition – like what it’s to Dwarves what dwarfism is to humans).

        The Dwarvish ability to tunnel via swallowing dirt and instantly shitting it back out is in the book, although the film portrays it slightly differently.

        In the books, Dwarves can naturally unhinge their jaws like snakes, whereas the film portrays it more like Reed Richard’s stretching ability, and even then Movie-Mulch apparently needs to actually use his hands to physically pull his jaws down.

        And regarding the expulsion of dirt, in the books after swallowing dirt Dwarves expel it from the rear-end using Dwarf Gas in one large clump, so that any tunnels they make are instantly resealed, which is why most Dwarves (including Mulch) have bum flaps on their trousers. The film in contrast dropped the whole dwarf gas angle and depicted the expulsion as more as a stream through the gaps in Mulch’s underwear.

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