Artemis Fowl movie review: Adaptation of fascinating books reduced to Hollywood's formulaic young adult fantasy

Kenneth Branagh's Artemis Fowl does away with the uniqueness and nuance of the books it is adapting in favour of a formulaic Young Adult fantasy film.

Aarushi Agrawal June 12, 2020 08:30:07 IST

2/5

Among the YA series I read growing up, my favourites are Artemis Fowl, 39 Clues, and Harry Potter. All of them have multiple protagonists, of which only in Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is Captain Holly Short clearly described as having “nut-brown skin”, giving me an instant thrill as a reader. In Disney’s Artemis Fowl, she is played by a white actor, and I simply cannot make sense of this unnecessary whitewashing.

Artemis Fowl movie review Adaptation of fascinating books reduced to Hollywoods formulaic young adult fantasy

Lara McDonnell in a still from Artemis Fowl

If Holly’s casting were the only digression, it would not be so bad, because unlike the books, screen-Holly is not the first female officer in Recon history. While that means her character loses some of its identity, it also means there is more women on screen. Among them, especially impressive is Judi Dench’s Commander Root. For the duration of the film, she brilliantly occupied my mind, and the purple-faced, vein-popping man in my imagination from the books took a comfortable backseat. Because the Dame has not lost his essence; she is still grumpy, occasionally slipping up and showing affection, outwardly annoyed but ultimately concerned about her officers, carrying all the nuance of the Commander.

The same, however, cannot be said of the protagonist, who has been rewritten in a way that he has lost all the essence of Colfer’s Artemis Fowl.

If this were a standalone film, unrelated to an already existing franchise, the boy would fit cleanly into the Hollywood trope of wide-eyed child being guided through a whole new fantasy world, and going on an adventure with allies and enemies. But when one gives him the name Artemis Fowl, and inserts him into that universe, the trope he is representing seems feeble compared to the nuanced, conflicted, layered character of the book. One hopes the real Artemis Fowl will come along, and obliterate the stereotype altogether.

Earlier this week, Josh Gad, who plays the (giant) dwarf Mulch Diggums, said in an interview, “And while I think the book is an incredible and masterful form, if you just literally recreated moment by moment, then is it even necessary?” A visual companion to beloved books does not seem a bad idea at all, as most of the Harry Potter films prove. But more importantly, while a film is not expected to recreate each moment of a book, one must counter Gad’s thought with the question: Why introduce changes if they are not, in some way, improving the original?

Artemis Fowl movie review Adaptation of fascinating books reduced to Hollywoods formulaic young adult fantasy

Josh Gad in a still from Artemis Fowl

The Artemis of the books is a breath of fresh air in YA (Young Adult) fantasy as an evil, 12-year-old genius wreaking havoc in his wake. A descendant from a long line of masterful criminals who is always two steps ahead of everyone else, he discovers an underground magical fairy race all by himself, and proceeds to kidnap one of them for ransom. Colfer trusts his young readers to traverse that nuance, and recognise that although he is made out to be likeable in a brattish sort of way, he is also very clearly an evil guy. And as the series progresses, readers see that even in someone as evil as Artemis, who literally has criminality coursing through his blood, there  is softness and goodness, which slowly starts to come through as he makes friends and develops emotional bonds.

In the film, which merges the first two books of the series, his father is considered a criminal by outside world. But as it turns out, he, and all the Fowls, are actually good guys who have been protecting big secrets, and are essentially responsible for maintaining peace between the human and fairy worlds. This also means that knowledge of this hidden race is handed down to Artemis by his father as stories and fairytales. He still kidnaps Holly but quickly releases her. Here, he is not so much evolving from evil to good but takes on the tone of a character who sometimes does bad things but is essentially a good guy.

Artemis Fowl movie review Adaptation of fascinating books reduced to Hollywoods formulaic young adult fantasy

A still from Artemis Fowl

In so drastically losing the essence of the character, the film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, exposes a startling lack of imagination. Artemis Fowl’s genius is slashed in half, and his evil is watered down to childish desperation. There is no room for him to grow since the good and bad sides are clearly marked, and any greyness in his character is deftly wiped away. While the film has excellent production quality, tiny pixels do not, in any way, compensate for lazy characters. Why could the filmmakers not retain the evil protagonist of this YA franchise? Why does nuance make them so uncomfortable?

Why must Hollywood insist on taking a unique narrative, hacking it down with a machete, and then remoulding it so it can fit into their formula of successful YA fantasy?

Artemis Fowl movie review Adaptation of fascinating books reduced to Hollywoods formulaic young adult fantasy

A still from Artemis Fowl

The most frustrating glaze on this deflated cake – because before you actually see the film, the idea of finally seeing Artemis Fowl on screen seems like a treat – is when, toward the end of the film, Artemis walks out for a call. He is in the signature coat and sunglasses, and he confidently saunters out. Everything about that scene tells you it is set up to be memorable. And then, when talking to the bad guy, he goes, “I’m Artemis Fowl, and I’m a criminal mastermind.” After all that, face-palming is all that one is left to do. You can just see the entire marketing team go, "We don’t care how much you guys change it up, we need this line, and we need it to be memorable so it can become the famous-quoted-line of the film, and we can spawn merchandise off it."

Artemis Fowl movie review Adaptation of fascinating books reduced to Hollywoods formulaic young adult fantasy

A still from Artemis Fowl

There is brilliant creativity in the Artemis Fowl books, beyond the character building and engaging plot. The back cover is in the form of an email where Colfer declares himself Artemis’ biographer with a smaller note at the bottom by Artemis denying that. The footer of every page of the book has a line of Gnommish, the fairy text, running across it. The Epilogue of the first book begins with the line: “Now that you have reviewed the case file, you must realise what a dangerous creature this Fowl is.”

The world the books create is fascinating and capable of deftly engaging the imagination of young audiences. In the hands of a filmmaker who respected the essence of the series, the film could have been used the visual medium to its advantage, exploring the world further, creating something fit to sit alongside the books. But given as we are this piece of commercialised, formulaic Hollywood at its dreariest, you would be much better off (re-)reading the books instead.

Artemis Fowl is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

Rating: **

All images from YouTube.

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