It only took two decades, but fans of Eoin Colfer’s “Artemis Fowl” are finally getting their big screen adaptation. Kenneth Branagh directs this first installment of the hit YA franchise, which might have played better as a Disney+ show or miniseries, à la HBO’s “His Dark Materials.” When the beginning rushes characterization in favor of plot setup the end feels like the adventure has just begun, it’s hard to ignore the wafting stench of disappointment. Branagh’s excitement for the material is found through his use of visual excess (mostly blotchy CGI), but even he appears more taken with the wonder than the why. Other than Judi Dench’s raspy rapaciousness as an elven military commander, there’s not much to this tale of fairies that will hook adult interest. For children, however, Disney’s latest original film will keep eyes luminously glued.
A global panic ensues after news breaks that invaluable pieces of art have been stolen from all corners of the globe. An international investigation leads to the arrest of a suspect: Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), who serves as narrator to the fantastical events about to unfold. Even though children’s movies call for broad character exaggeration, Gad goes a step further by taking Diggums’ crafty demeanor to the nearest Chuck E. Cheese. His vocal intonation implies devious grit, but Mulch sounds “Frozen’s” Olaf doing a lame Batman impersonation. Gad’s Mulch is certainly not everyone’s favorite snowman, nor is he Hagrid or Gimli. He’s just a magical creature oxymoron — a giant dwarf with no real connection to the conflict other than providing colorful commentary about how awesome the Fowl family is.
This criminal mastermind dynasty, believed to have hired Mulch, now consists of kid genius Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw) and his absent father (Colin Farrell). You have to give screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl kudos for unabashedly centering the classic “hero’s journey” around a pampered know-it-all. No adolescent is going to relate to this 12-year-old’s lavish upbringing. After all, the Fowl mansion itself is the main set piece for 75% of the action presented. The allure of Artemis is that his intellect and familial ties allow him to open a bridge connecting the human world with the underground fairy one, long hidden from mankind. It’s in those cavernous depths that his father is imprisoned by a mysterious foe shrouded by a hood and synthetic voice modulator.
The women of “Artemis Fowl” are far more intriguing than their posturing male counterparts — except for Nikesh Patel in a scene-stealing role as a centaur in charge of fairy technical operations. Newcomer Lara McDonnell impresses in her leading debut as an earnest yet headstrong reconnaissance officer for the fairy law enforcement (Lower Element Police, or LEPrecon for short). Hoping to wash away her late father’s traitorous reputation, if not prove his innocence, Officer Holly Short is always the first to volunteer for the most dangerous missions. In this case, a troll has gone loose above ground, and must be stopped before he can endanger a small Irish village that’s not too far from Fowl Manor.
Before Artemis and Holly’s fateful paths cross, the young heir is aided by the family butler, ironically named Domovi Butler (Nonzo Anozie), and his young sister Juliet (Tamara Smart). Although the narrative doesn’t do a convincing job explaining why these two have been hidden from Artemis until now, they certainly pour everything into making sure the boy rides destiny’s train. Naturally, there’s a MacGuffin involved: an ancient artifact known as the “Aculos” that can be weaponized in the wrong hands. Holly’s father stole it long ago and hid it for unknown reasons, and now the fairies are trying to reclaim it. Meanwhile, Artemis and company are also seeking it out; its power can potentially summon Artemis Senior back home.
The mad scramble for this precious item ushers in spells, time freezing, slow-motion combat, and a whole lot of seismic destruction for minimal narrative progression. Thankfully, every Judi Dench militaristic retort or rebuke offers immense satisfaction, as do most of the underground sequences that don’t involve Mulch. Humanity may need protection, but the magical playground of possibilities beneath proves more sacred. If anything, “Artemis Fowl’s” pressed conclusion ensures its hybrid potency of criminality and magic will be better realized in upcoming sequels.