The journey of “Artemis Fowl” from young adult novel series to major motion picture took about 20 years and entailed many starts and stops and bumps in the road, but a big-budget, Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation was finally set to open on May 29 – and then, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theatrical debut was scuttled in favor of a June 12 release on Disney+. And though it would have been lovely to take in the lavish set pieces and the cool CGI creations and the whiz-bang action sequences on the big screen, “Artemis Fowl” still plays well as a warm, funny and entertaining at-home family viewing experience.
Recognizing how cumbersome it would be to incorporate elements from all eight of the original “Artemis Fowl” books, director Branagh wisely opted for an origins story, based largely on the first of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s novels, with the film clocking in at a brisk 95 minutes. Thanks to the gorgeous and lush cinematography (“Fowl” was shot at Longcross Studios in England, in northern England, Ireland and Ho Chi Minh City) and the screenplay by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson and the British comedy writer Hamish McColl, the film adaptation does a marvelous job of capturing the decidedly Irish tone of the adventure. (Even the name “Artemis Fowl” is perfectly suited for an Irish accent. Go ahead, put on your best Irish tone and say it: “Artemis Fowl.” See what I mean?)
“Artemis Fowl” starts with a media frenzy outside Fowl Manor in Ireland – home to generations of antique collectors/adventurers. The famous Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell) is suspected of stealing some of the world’s most priceless artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone and the Book of Kells, but that’s fake news. As Artemis has long told his 12-year-old son, Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), there’s a larger purpose to the long and mysterious journeys he’s been taking. Ever since young Artemis was a toddler, his father has been telling him elaborate stories about an underground world beneath the surface of the Earth – a world populated by fairies, trolls and goblins. Of course, the stories are just that – bedtime fables. Or are they?
Josh Gad is a scene-stealing delight as one Mulch Diggums, an oversized dwarf and career thief who is hauled into a special MI6 interrogation unit and offered a deal if he’ll tell what he knows about the whereabouts of one Artemis Fowl. This plot device sets up Mulch as the narrator for our story, as he begins to spin the wondrous and quite unbelievable story of young Artemis Fowl, a most different kind of boy genius.
“When he was 7,” says Mulch, “he beat [a European chess champion] in five moves. When he was 9, he won the architectural competition to design the Dublin Opera House. When he was 10, he cloned a goat and named it Bruce. Weird choice, but he’s an unusual kid.”
When Dad disappears, the authorities assume he’s on the lam and is guilty of the thefts, but he’s actually been kidnapped by a rogue rebel fairy and is being held underground for ransom. Just like that, young Artemis Fowl springs into action, and with the help of the family’s loyal and quite lethal butler (Nonso Anozie, doing wonderful work), whose last name is actually Butler, but he hates it when you call him a butler, Artemis is soon infiltrating the world of the fairies, and vice versa.
Dame Judi Dench, clad in emerald green armor and sporting elfin ears and yet still looking infinitely less silly than she did in “Cats,” has a grand time playing the crusty Cmdr. Julius Root, who is over 800 years old but still in charge of the Lower Elements Police. (When Root and her troops arrive in Ireland to rescue a fairy who has been trapped in the human world, her first words are, yep, “Top o’ the morning.”) Lara McDonnell is a winning presence as Holly Short, a resourceful LEP fairy cadet who strikes up an unlikely alliance with young Artemis, as they band together to save both of their worlds.
Much of the humor in “Artemis Fowl” centers on the catastrophic possibility of people learning the underground world exists. (As Mulch puts it: “Most human beings are afraid of gluten. How do you think they’d handle goblins?”) And there’s some “Men in Black”-style humor, such as when fairies are seen by humans, they erase their memories with a “mind swipe,” not to mention a passing reference that David Bowie was in fact a magical fairy living aboveground.
The plot about the battle to obtain possession of the obligatory glowing knickknack that is the source of life for the fairy world but could destroy the world in the wrong hands is ho-hum and familiar, and really just an excuse for us to meet this wonderful and diverse collection of characters, and for Branagh to stage some gigantic action sequences, most notably a well-executed but overlong battle featuring a gigantic troll who has invaded Fowl Manor. I actually prefer “Artemis Fowl” in the quieter moments, whether young Artemis is learning the truth about his father, parrying with the butler who doesn’t like to be called a butler, or bonding with the winged and determined Holly Short, who looks to become his best friend for life.