The young adult publishing phenomenon Artemis Fowl has been tipped for so long to inherit Harry Potter’s place in movies, it might attract a sympathetic glance from Prince Charles. The first instalment by Irish novelist Eoin Colfer was published in 2001. Since then, two decades have passed in a development hell that would make a multi-part saga itself, spinning through potential directors (Jim Sheridan), stars (Saoirse Ronan) and producers (Robert De Niro). Meanwhile, Colfer turned out another seven books, each vastly successful.
That drawn-out back-story may be why, as Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation finally reaches the Disney+ streaming platform, tension pervades. The film’s To Do list is daunting. Appeal to existing fans and widen the audience. Make a standalone kids’ action movie that can also be the first in a franchise. Oh, and Ken: the shareholders are watching.
For those who have neither had nor been a child in the past 20 years, there are in fact two Artemis Fowls. Our hero is the younger version, a sardonic 12-year-old prodigy, played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw. The other is his father (Colin Farrell, checking his watch), dealer in antiquities, cryptically wealthy. The household is rounded out by bodyguard Domovi Butler (Nonso Anozie). As with the books, Fowl is Potter upside down. A fairytale world of mythic creatures exists alongside humanity, but the principal boy has no magic powers, just a coolly snotty manner and a master criminal bent inherited from his father. A tricky mix to pull off, with a plot fused together from two of Colfer’s novels.
At first, the backdrop is tourist-dreamy Irish coastland. Soon, the effects team takes over, cooking up a subterranean kingdom policed by scowling fairies. Here we meet the cast who will gatecrash the human realm, led by Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a roguish dwarf so visually suggestive of Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid in the Potter films, you wonder if a beard can be copyrighted. Then there is forbidding fairy commander Root, played by Judi Dench, resembling the meeting point of late-’90s David Bowie and the crime novelist Val McDermid. A troll escapes above ground; a young elf cop (Lara McDonnell) is dispatched in pursuit, colliding with anti-hero Artemis.
Age provides the best gag in the movie, the dilated lifespans of elves allowing Dench to tell the fresh-faced McDonnell: “You’re 84, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” Dench, in reality a year older than that, is by some way the liveliest presence in the film.
In recent years, Branagh has developed a curious side-hustle as a director of effects-heavy blockbusters. Here, the project suffers from the scale-down of an abandoned cinema release. On small screens covered with jammy fingerprints, the computer-generated dazzle will unavoidably look less Fantastic Beasts than children’s television. Coronavirus was beyond Branagh’s influence, so it doesn’t explain the choppy storytelling or lack of personality. However deceptively, the best children’s films look like they were a joy to make, a holiday on a movie set. Here, much of the fun was left out of the suitcase.
‘Artemis Fowl’ is on Disney+ from Friday June 12
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