The present has been stolen by a pandemic. My future will be stolen by the climate crisis. And, as though that wasn’t bad enough, now my past has been picked off by a sniper rifle in the hands of Kenneth Branagh.
First, and before I really get into anything here, I would like to say this: if you have not read the Artemis Fowl books, this movie is not for you. It’s a borderline incomprehensible mess, uninteresting to look at, listen to, or try to understand. I love the books with a deep and burning passion, and I honestly believe that you’d get a far more enjoyable cinematic experience ploughing through the initial trilogy, in all their inventive, comedic, action-packed glory, than you would from seeing this film. Those books go down easy. This film doesn’t. You’ve got a weekend in front of you – dive into those, instead. That’s my review for those people who haven’t read the books.
And now, for the rest of us: what the fuck was that? I have been waiting fifteen years for my Artemis Fowl movie, and I had long-since come to terms with the fact that it would probably never be as good as the books. The more time it spent in development hell, the more wary I became of what the final product could be. But what we got what worse than anything that I could even come close to imagining.
The reason that, in my opinion Eoin Colfer’s iconic series is as beloved as it is, is due to the fact that it presents brilliantly adult tropes wrapped up with the wide-eyed, earnest fun of a children’s series. I had never read anything like Artemis Fowl when I first picked up the series at ten years old; the antihero lead, the ice-cold cool of the technology mixed with the tradition of fairy lore, the thrillingly propulsive action sequences: there’s a reason that everyone I’ve given those books to, from my gran to my boyfriend, have loved them just as much as I did. They take so much of the gritty excitement that comes in darker stories, and instead place them against a meticulously fun fantasy backdrop. They’re a reminder that kids don’t need to be talked down to – in fact, they like it best when you let them play with the adult tropes, even if you’re still keeping everything around them strictly PG.
Which is what lacks here. This is a strictly sanitized version of the story, all the sharp edges scrubbed off. There’s none of that fantastically addictive anarchy of the books, with Artemis an unrelentingly cold sociopath, his moments of emotion and connection even more profound for knowing that they do not come easily to him. He’s a surfboarding, occasionally smart-mouthed preteen in a suit instead of the chilling little dweeb we know and love from the books.
Holly Short, hot-headed but brilliant and idealistic, is carefully smoothed-out into a competent, featureless version of one of those cheap plastic toys you could make spin three inches off the ground before your fingers got caught in the wings. My beloved Butler, the true father figure of the books and a brilliantly tender take on the mentor character, is booted to make room for Colin Farrell, and gets embarrassed at the thought that he might have cried in front of people. Foaly doesn’t even have his tin-foil hat. Like so many great long-running series, the best thing about Artemis Fowl is the compelling and utterly unique characters. Here, they’re devoid of the faults and flaws and temerity that bring them to life, Disney-fied versions of what edge might look like. I’m hurt. I’m hurt.
The grizzled Lower Elements Police storyline is replaced with Judi Dench to stomp around looking cross (and cool, in all fairness), while Holly Short and Artemis Fowl get caught up in matching missions to save their father’s reputations, their reluctant allyship ignored for mushy, muddled attempts at sentimentality. There are plot elements here pulled from the entirety of the first three books of the Artemis Fowl series, and it feels like all those plot threads have just been dumped into a bucket and plucked out at random. It’s hard to know for sure what someone who has never read the series would make of this, but, even for me, there were moments I had to double-back and try to piece together something that just didn’t make sense.
The writing is dreadful, even when taken out of comparisons to Colfer’s whip-smart books: every single new plot element is introduced with someone exclaiming “ah, yes, you’re talking about the proceeds to inelegantly lay out every detail of said element that will come into play at some point during the rest of the story.”. It’s hard to tell how most of the performances are here, given that they’re so stymied by such awful dialogue (the stuff we see, at least, since the film does go through inexplicable phases of just not showing anyone talking on-screen, despite the fact that dialogue is being spoken) – Ferdia Shaw, as our leading boy, has some promise, but the film seems unwilling to let him have the fun that Artemis does with his brilliant schemes and evil machinations. Josh Gad, whose version of Mulch Diggums has inexplicably been upgraded to narrator, seems to give up on his Irish accent about twenty minutes in, and jettisons all remaining acting ability shortly afterwards.
And you know the worst part of this? The part that really gets me? This is it. There’s going to be no “Release the Branagh Cut!” apologists, and sequels or remakes look doubtful after the flop of this first attempt. This is all we’re going to get. I have waited fifteen years to see this series come to the big screen – a series packed with brilliantly cinematic sequences, a series that seemed made for a live-action adaptation – and this toothless wreck is all that I’m going to get.
I’m joking when I say that Branagh has taken out my childhood – anyone who thinks that way needs a firm talking-to, and a reminder that the original source material still exists – but he has put to bed any last hope I had at seeing these stories and these characters that I love so much given the justice they deserve.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Forbes)