Director – Kenneth Branagh
Cast – Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Nonzo Anozie, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench
Trust Disney to turn an origin tale of a criminal mastermind into a wholesome father-son fable. But that is exactly what the Mouse House has done to Artemis Fowl, I would assume (and hope) to the sounds of director Kenneth Branagh’s protests.
In their attempt to make up for the decade that the film has been stuck in development hell — a decade in which the source novels’ fanbase has obviously outgrown its love for the books — Disney and Branagh have taken the decision (perhaps jointly, perhaps not) to retool the movie into a more generic experience. This way, they might have thought, the film could appeal to kids who might never have heard of Artemis at all.
Watch the Artemis Fowl trailer here
Often described as ‘Die Hard with fairies’, the Artemis Fowl books were a refreshing alternative to the Harry Potter series — almost recklessly infatuated with their anti-hero protagonist, and very, very funny. But Artemis Fowl, the movie, barely resembles writer Eoin Colfer’s novels, and such is the vehemence with which it alters key details that I’m forced to wonder, as a fan of Colfer’s books, if Branagh and Disney even liked them in the first place.
It takes Artemis, the 12-year-old ‘hero’ of the story 40 minutes of screen-time in a 95-minute film to discover the existence of fairies. This is information that he already has on page one of the book. Artemis in the film is still a genius, but crucially, he isn’t an evil genius, which is what made the character so compelling in the first place. By robbing him of his redemptive arc, the film also robs itself of any real stakes, besides, of course, the world-ending threat that you can find in virtually every mainstream blockbuster these days.
Played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, Artemis in the film is motivated (as he was in the book) not by a desire to restore his family’s lost honour by kidnapping a fairy and demanding a ransom, but by a mission to locate his missing dad, whom he believes to have been kidnapped by the magical creatures. His father is a notorious criminal who is mentioned only in passing in the book, but in the film appears as a supporting character.
To this end, Branagh and the writers, Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, upend the very structure of the novel. Perhaps sensing that Artemis Fowl isn’t ‘likeable’ enough, they hired Colin Farrell to play his dad, conceived new scenes involving just the two of them bonding, and filmed them in reshoots. I’d assume that Farrell was paid the equivalent of the Fowl fortune for just a few days’ work, the majority of which involves him struggling to escape from the confines of a magical goo.
Nonso Anozie is Butler, Lara McDonnell is Holly Short, Josh Gad is Mulch Diggums and Ferdia Shaw is Artemis Fowl in Disney’s Artemis Fowl.
Photo by Nicola Dove
The character of Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), who was largely restricted to comic relief in the book, has been made a more vital participant in the film. Not only does he appear as the fairies’ secret weapon in the second-half siege sequence, he also narrates the story.
Making alterations to the source material is standard practice in film adaptations, especially the sort of cosmetic changes that Disney often makes in its movies. But there has to be a point to it all. For instance, it’s understandable why the writers would alter the gender of Commander Julius Root. Described in the book as a cigar-smoking, humourless elf who hasn’t laughed out loud in 200 years, Root is played by Dame Judi Dench in the film, in a performance so disengaged that it gives the sense that Dench is perpetually wondering if she’s missed her flight.
But take, for instance, the decision to change the race of Artemis’ Man Friday Domovoi Butler — the Eurasian bodyguard from the books is played by black actor Nonzo Anozie in the film. Did no one contemplate the optics of this? What message are they trying to send by giving a rich white kid who belongs to a landowning family a black manservant who’s literally been ‘bred’ to look after him?
By insisting that Butler not be called ‘Butler’, as he was in the books, and instead be called ‘Dom’, the filmmakers believe that they have given a largely submissive character some agency. And by hiring Anozie for the role they think they’ve brought diversity to the cast. But boy, does it come across as tone-deaf tokenism.
It’s no secret that the only reason why Disney chose to release Artemis Fowl — a $125 million tent-pole once positioned as a franchise-starter — directly to its streaming service, is because the film simply wouldn’t have survived in a theatrical marketplace. It’s a mess — incoherently structured, clumsily written and one of the most disappointing films of Branagh’s directorial career.
It’s telling when the action is all that is well-done in movies of this scale, because it’s the only thing that’s too expensive to do over.
Artemis Fowl is available on Disney+Hotstar in India.