When I originally heard that the long-awaited ARTEMIS FOWL (2020) movie was finally being released after years of being passed around studios, writers, and directors like an unwanted plate of homemade appetizers, I couldn’t have been more excited. Based on the book series of the same name written by Eoin Colfer, this story was an exciting chapter of my childhood reading list. The tale of a physically and socially inept 12-year old master criminal whose morality was largely ambiguous appealed to many of that age group. The character and series stood out from the usual tale of child heroes we are all familiar with.
While the books follow the young criminal mastermind and his protector, Butler, on a journey to discover and rob the magical fairy realm that exists below the Earth’s surface, the movie takes a ‘slightly’ different approach, to say the least. ARTEMIS FOWL does have the odd magical moment, both visually and thematically. But it ultimately falls short of standing out due to sacrificing originality in favour of formulated Disney drivel. All the magic from the books is essentially drained and used to oil the churning gears of the Disney movie machine!
Ferdia Shaw, the newcomer who takes on the title role, did a wonderful job with the script he was given. He’s a perfect fit and I can only imagine how well he would have performed in a more loyal telling of the story. Josh Gad as Mulch Diggums also worked incredibly well, and it’s possibly my favourite Gad role so far, although his narration felt entirely unnecessary! The problem doesn’t lie with the cast as much as it does with the portrayal of the characters themselves. In the movie, Artemis says, “I’m Artemis Fowl, and I’m a criminal mastermind.” This is a statement that couldn’t be further from the truth. The movie’s complete disregard for source material squeezes this character into a Disney hero mould, one where his motivations aren’t power, wealth, and pride, but rather the rescue of his kidnapped father (Colin Farrell). The first red flag appears when we first see the infamously inactive character casually surfing off the coast of Ireland. Something the book character never did and never would have done.
There is a complete lack of any real character development or arcs, but this is only part of the problem faced by ARTEMIS FOWL. We’ve seen many book-to-movie adaptations that have failed to impress: ERAGON (2006) and THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007), for example. However, two which better highlight the problem with ARTEMIS FOWL would be CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT (2009) and LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004). Both these movies tried to use a single movie to cover the content of multiple books by moving characters, events, and plot around with little regard for how this would impact the telling of the original story. The first book of the Artemis Fowl series is arguably the best, and its story would have made a far more compelling movie that what we were given.
In the books, Artemis kidnaps a fairy, Holly Short, and holds her hostage in exchange for fairy gold. Ultimately offering half the gold back in exchange for a wish, which he uses to heal his mentally ill mother. The story is about his clever discovery of the fairy world and how he uses his genius to perform the perfect heist, outsmarting his opponents at every turn. In the movies…well…in truth, the movie plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Artemis is trying to locate ‘The Aculos’: a fairy device of untold power, in order to save his father from a fairy villain. What follows is a plot-hole ridden mess that even children will likely struggle to enjoy. Disney likely changed the story to avoid having a criminal as a role model for young children, but by doing so they miss the true brilliance of Eoin Colfer’s original character. Yes, he was a master criminal, and yes, he stole gold, artefacts, and more from people and creatures alike. But Artemis was never wholly evil. He put the lives of others before his plan, and often displayed empathy towards those working against him.
The final point I wish to raise with ARTEMIS FOWL comes in the form of unnecessary changes to both plot and story. Nonso Anozie takes on the role of Butler. In the books, Butler is known by everyone as Butler. It’s his family name but also refers to his role. His first name is kept secret until the moment of his death because it’s tradition that the Butler family don’t reveal their first name to their clients, ever. However, the movie avoids the name ‘Butler’ altogether, going as far as to state that instead of everybody using the name, nobody did. I can’t help but wonder if Disney felt uncomfortable with having a black man called Butler, and if so, why cast a black man in the first place when Butler is described in the books as being of Eurasian descent?
We also see Judi Dench take on the role of Commander Root. Root in the books is a war-hardened man who smokes cigars. Dench did a great job, as far as the script would allow, and I have no problem with adding more diversity (race, gender, or otherwise), but this change is most problematic for how it impacts the story. A major arc in the books is that Holly Short is the first female LEPRecon officer, and part of her character’s struggle revolves around this fact.
In summary, I feel that ARTEMIS FOWL falls short of being anything more than a jumbled mess of CGI, poorly written dialogue, jumbled character motivations, and a blatant lack of real character arcs or development. The clear abandonment of the source material leaves audiences with an uninspired trip to a bland, seemingly magicless Ireland. Disney have stated that showing the movie on their streaming service is due to the pandemic, but I can’t imagine that ARTEMIS FOWL would have done anything other than flop at the box office!