Artemis Fowl is an incomprehensible spectacle that eventually starts to eat itself

Sent straight to streaming due to the pandemic, Disney’s family movie about a young criminal mastermind is a chaotic spectacle full of bedtime story waffle, writes critic Luke Buckmaster.

Artemis Fowl is, I assume, a brilliant 12-year-old criminal mastermind who is prodigiously diabolical and clever beyond his years: calm under fire, cunning as a fox. I say “I assume” because I didn’t get that from the bombastic family movie that bears his name, though apparently his wickedness is a big thing in the books. In Disney’s blockbuster-that-never-was (intended for cinemas but sent straight to streaming due to COVID-19) the titular pipsqueak comes across more like an extra from a Men in Black/Spy Kids crossover: under-age and over-dressed, usually with some plasticky prop to wield or hokey set to navigate.

Like everybody else involved in this US $125 million brouhaha—including and especially the director Kenneth Branagh—the protagonist seems to have no control over anything; the narrative runs through his fingers like sand. Eventually the whole damn movie begins to eat itself, when SFX carnage is unleashed in the form of a giant glob of CGI that slithers across the frame like a tapeworm. I won’t spoil the narrative justification for this enormous parasitic digi-splotch, suffice to say it involves the pausing of time, which is something performed semi-regularly in order to clean up evidence of a magical sister universe, lest the doorways between Our World and Their World open up etcetera etcetera.

Branagh begins outside a mansion next to a picturesque cliff face in Ireland, a media scrum gathered on the ground as the camera swirls from high above. Reporters go into a tizzy when the hairy ‘giant dwarf’ Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) arrives, who is believed to be an accomplice of the notorious Artemis Fowl. He is taken in for police questioning, and, rather than authorities initiating old-fashioned interrogation techniques—like whacking his noggin with a phone book—they instead allow this big lug to babble bedtime story waffle about a place “where magic and wonder still exists.”

This place of purported mystery and wonder spits out some curious creations, including fairies clothed head to toe in thick, gluggy, gaudy green. Commander Root is head of security for the fairy people and is played by Judi Dench, announcing her arrival by bellowing out “top o’ the morning!” Oh, I get it: she’s supposed to be Irish. The Dame finds herself kitted up in another memeable WTF outfit so soon after appearing as Old Deuteronomy in Cats, the leader of the Jellicle tribe who looks like a relative of the Lion from The Wizard of Oz.

Moving on: Fowl’s dad, Artemis Fowl Sr (Colin Farrell) announces to this offspring that he is buggering off somewhere, phrasing his departure a little more elegantly—with words such as “may the road rise up to meet you” (the film is full of dialogue like that). Pappa Fowl soon finds himself in a spot of bother, however, taken prisoner by a baddie who sneers at him from underneath a cloak: their face ensconced in darkness under a hoodie, speaking into what looks like a kind of extraterrestrial holographic smartphone emanating more gaudy green colour. For reasons that elude (maybe all that green?) I pictured Kermit the Frog there, impersonating Senator Palpatine, on a smoko break during the latest Muppets production. What can I say—the mind wanders.

Things pick up a little when Fowl captures a fairy (Lara McDonnell) and Branagh’s roving cameras venture deep below the ground into the magical Haven City. This place is introduced in a sweeping establishing shot unveiled in the Dori way, intended to evoke repeated internal exclamations of “oh look, shiny!” In this busy location one can see where the money went, with a great many fluro gadgets and heavily wardrobed, CGI-caked characters in front of screensaver-like backgrounds whizzing with activity. The introduction to this world feels more like ticking boxes (shiny thing one, two, three) than imaginative world building. Fill the frame, make some colour and noise, bish bash bosh.

The higgledy-piggledy narrative structure at least finds a bit of energy in the film’s second half. Every once in a while Branagh (who recently helmed Murder on the Orient Express and 2015’s Cinderalla) will return to Artemis—in his black tie dinner suit—or to his father—tied up and being lectured at by the mysterious hooded Kermit—or to Mulch Diggum, who is sort-of narrating the story—or to characters in a base camp-like place in Haven City, yelping about how their latest “time freeze” is about to collapse.

They might as well be speaking about the film itself. Artemis Fowl often seems on the edge of folding in on itself; one SFX splotch away from candy-coloured self-immolation. Other times it just feels flat. And at all times the movie feels outdated: like a hokey old school Disney adventure shot on a soundstage, with no rhyme or reason or raison ‘d’etre other than the provision of unadventurous hooey. The sort of movie broadly intended for everybody and particularly appealing to nobody. It seems unlikely the titular character, despite his apparent precociousness and great intellect, will be getting the band back together for a sequel any time soon.