Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.
I like to think I’ve put childish things away. I don’t fret over cartoon reboots “ruining my childhood.” I have no opinion on the new generation of PoKemon. Go ahead and reboot Spider-Man every six months, makes no difference to me.
But then Disney made an Artemis Fowl movie.
There are eight Artemis Fowl books. I’ve read four of them, and honestly only liked three. However, the first one, Artemis Fowl, was one of my favorite books. In a sea of YA or children’s book heroes that overcome adversity with the powers of kindness, friendship, and bravery, Artemis stood out: An unapologetic criminal mastermind that comes out ahead by outwitting his enemies.
To understand what the movie gets wrong, lets start with the difference between the book-Artemis and his cinematic counterpart: In the book, Artemis is childish enough to believe in fairies, smart enough to study myths to deduce how fairies really are and track one down, but still cynical enough to want to use this knowledge for monetary gain. In the movie, Artemis is none of this. When informed that fairies may be involved in his father’s disappearance, he exclaims “but fairies aren’t real!” Everything he knows about fairies, including where to capture one, are directly told to him by his father or written in his father’s journal, and instead of gold Artemis wants a magical macguffin device to trade for his kidnapped father.
A book accurate version of Artemis would be a tough task for any child actor. He’s smart and confident enough to always command the room, but as a charismatic anti-hero; a good reference point would probably be the MCU version of Loki, a schemer that’s not exactly “good” but still likeable enough for audiences to invest in. Child actors tend to rely on being ‘serious’ to project intelligence or authority, so walking that line while still trying to capture the comic, light-hearted edge of the story would be difficult. Ferdia Shaw, making his screen debut, makes an effort, but just can’t do it. His take on Artemis is somebody more likely to spend lunch in the school library, not plotting the crime of the century.
So, let’s look at the premise. The book is high-concept, but simple. Author Eoin Colfer described it as “Die Hard with fairies,” which is pretty accurate. 12-year old criminal master mind Artemis Fowl learns of a hidden world of magical creatures, operating just below our human world. He plots to capture a fairy, and hold her ransom for one ton of gold. A standoff ensues, between Fowl, aided by his combat-trained Butler, and LEPRecon, the fairy police, who seal Fowl manor off with a ‘Time Stop’ and resort to increasingly desperate and brutal methods to force Artemis to surrender. In the middle is Holly Short, the captured fairy and LEPRecon officer, who plots her own escape.
Not too complex, and with easy to follow motivations for everybody: Artemis wants gold, the fairies want to rescue Holly without giving him any gold. There are twists and complications, everything follows in a logical fashion from stated goals. The movie, however, takes a different tack. After all, if the premise starts with “criminal mastermind plots to kidnap somebody for ransom…” and then you decide to cut the main character being a criminal mastermind, you got problems. It’s like making a heist movie, but then deciding the main character shouldn’t be a thief.
The movie covers the new lack of character motivation with lots of plot. Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) is a shady art dealer, who one day disappears from his yacht. The family butler Dom (Nonso Anozie) then reveals to young Artemis Fowl II that the Fowl family fortune comes from dealings with fairies dating back generations, and which may be linked to his fathers disappearance. Then Artemis gets a call from evil fairy Opal Koboi, who reveals they have kidnapped Artemis Sr., and the ransom to get him back is the Acolus, a magical device that is too powerful to allow to fall into the wrong hands (it could let a user summon armies, teleport between worlds, blah blah blah. It would let the magical fairies use super-magic, basically). So, in response to a fairy holding his father ransom for the Acolus, Artemis then comes up with a plan to hold another fairy ransom for the Acolus. Or, he holds Holly Short ransom, so that LEPRecon will send in a dwarf to rescue her, so that the dwarf will then open the safe in Fowl manor which holds the Acolus, so that then Holly, who Artemis has befriended by this point, can use the Acolus to rescue Artemis Sr. If that sounds convoluted and doesn’t make sense, rest assured, I’m actually leaving out the more confusing plot points.
Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) is basically co-lead of the book, but gets very little to do here. Instead of figuring out how to escape Artemis, and coming to a grudging respect for him, she is very angry for a little while, then she and Artemis both bond over having father issues, and then they’re friends. The conversation where they decide to ally together—“My father is kidnapped” “My father is dead”—deserves to go with the baffling character turn hall of fame, right up there with “Martha…why did you say that name?” from Batman vs Superman.
As Commander Root, Judi Dench scowls and growls her way through the movie. There is an odd emphasis on Mulch Diggum (Josh Gad), a “giant dwarf” (so, regular person size) who is recruited from fairy prison to break into Fowl manor. Diggum is the kind of comic sidekick character that could get a big audience following, but the framing device that posits Diggum as narrator raises more questions than answers; at least half the narration is Diggum delivering exposition on things he shouldn’t know nor care about (did he and Artemis have an off-screen conversation where Artemis waxed poetic about his love of surfing before school?) and the subplot where Artemis Fowl Sr is accused (falsely?) of stealing several world famous artifacts isn’t actually resolved.
The biggest unresolved plot point, and ode to the films’ misbegotten franchise dreams, is the depiction of Opal Koboi. Koboi does not actually appear in the first Artemis Fowl book, instead making her debut in the sequel as the threat so big that it inspires the fairies to team up with Artemis, and becoming a recurring antagonist through the rest of the series. She appears here as set-up to her eventual place as the franchise arch-nemesis, but she doesn’t really do anything, besides stand in shadows and deliver exposition. Her face is constantly shrouded, and she speaks with voice distortion—even though everybody knows it’s her, and multiple characters refer to her by name. Its obvious that they wanted the character to appear in the movie, but wanted to hold off on actually casting her until there was something for her to actually do.
Some of the smaller changes work—in the book Holly is the first female to join LEPRecon, a subplot that’s cut here; that was probably jettisoned so that Judi Dench could be cast, but does update the story for 2020, an era where being the first to break the glass ceiling would read as tokenism instead of progress. There is also some thought put into casting Dom Butler as a black man—in the book, Butler is white, and only goes by “Butler,” his first name not being revealed until the third book. Here, he is referred to only by his name, producers realizing that a black sidekick character that’s reduced entirely to “Butler” would not play well.
Still, when it comes to the fundamentals of the story, its been gutted. There’s a criminal mastermind, with no real affinity for crimes or ability to mastermind, chasing a macguffin in a plot that we’re repeatedly told could change the fate of the fairy and human worlds forever. It’s a too-late effort to chase post-Harry Potter and Twilight YA trends, that fails even at that. Artemis Fowl was published in 2001, and was immediately compared to Harry Potter, the other YA series about an 11-year old that discovers a hidden world of magic beneath our own. However, where Harry Potter aged and turned from a series for pre-teens into a series for teenagers, Artemis Fowl stayed firmly for pre-teens. The latter half of the HP series has proven the most influential—teenagers dealing with romantic problems while leading an uprising against a tyrannical government in a fantastical or sci-fi setting. Artemis Fowl simply isn’t that—it’s a crime caper for kids, with magic thrown in. In trying to chase trends, they’ve missed everything that people liked about the story in the first place.