Review: ‘Artemis Fowl’ is a chaotic children’s CGI fest on Disney+

This image released by Disney Plus shows, from left, Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in a scene from “Artemis Fowl.” (Disney via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Artemis Fowl' on Disney+

In 2001, Eoin Colfer published the first of eight installments in a series of fantasy novels.

Now, “Artemis Fowl” is streaming as a live-action children’s fantasy flick on Disney+.

If you read the books, you may find the filmmakers chopped out too much, according to online reader complaints. If you haven’t read the books, you’ll almost certainly find it chaotic, confusing and hard to follow, albeit with a few intermittent redeeming qualities.

Set in Ireland at a place called Fowl Manor, antiquities collector Artemis Fowl is accused of allegedly stealing global relics and is abducted by evil pixie Opal Koboi, who claims he stole a magical device known as the “Aculos.” As a result, his genius son, Artemis Fowl Jr., must use his dad’s diary of Irish fairy tales to find his father in a fantastical quest.

Debuting child actor Ferdia Shaw shows early promise as the precocious title character as we’re introduced to father-son themes, including a diary like Sean Connery in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). Sadly, that’s where his character development stops, as the supposed main character is barely on screen for the first third of the movie.

Instead, the film cuts away for long periods of time to the underground lair of the villain, Opal Koboi (Hong Chau), who also lacks character development, as well as the magical land of the fairies. It’s an imaginative world filled with nifty hair and makeup for pointy-eared elves, grotesque goblins and centaurs cleverly named Foley — like foal, get it?

The best character in this realm is Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), an 84-year-old elf like something out of the North Pole in “The Santa Clause” (1994). The child actress demonstrates promising charisma, but when she’s abducted by the boy hero as ransom, it may become hard for young viewers to decide who they should be rooting for.

Judi Dench also appears as Holly’s 802-year-old leprechaun officer, Julius Root, while Josh Gad plays the enlarged dwarf Mulch Diggums, who looks like Hagrid in “Harry Potter.” Their gruff voices are fine in small doses but soon become grating in narration.

Think back to all of your favorite movie narrators: the soothing Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), the endearing Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” (1994) and the nostalgic Jean Shepherd in “A Christmas Story” (1983). By contrast, Gad sounds like Christian Bale’s gruff Batman as our vocal guide throughout, which is hard on the ears.

At one point, Gad even calls it out, telling Dench, “We sound like two hippos grunting.”

The film is also oddly tone deaf with Artemis having a black guardian named “Butler” (Nonso Anozie). When Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) comes to visit, we’re excited to watch their friendship bloom. However, she gets zero screen time, appearing only during battle scenes and ultimately left looking longingly out of the mansion window.

“Artemis Fowl” would have been better as a two-hour movie rather than the current 95-minute runtime. Surely, Disney imposed a time limit for the short attention spans of kids, but another 15 or 30 minutes would have allowed screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl to flesh out the character development to feel a little more satisfying.

Director Kenneth Branagh (“Thor”) already showed Disney what he could do with an hour and 45 minutes in the live-action remake of “Cinderella” (2015), so why constrain him here? Branagh has had a rough go of it lately after the critically panned “Murder of the Orient Express” (2017), but I hope he keeps directing to explore his versatile talents.

Here, the fast-paced CGI battles are so hectic that you’ll often wonder who is fighting who and why. Perhaps the action would have been easier to decipher on the big screen, but Disney initially delayed the theatrical release from Aug. 9, 2019 to May 29, 2020 in a slate reshuffle before ultimately deciding to go straight to streaming due to COVID-19.

I suppose parents are better off for it. This way, you won’t waste $60 to bring your family to the movie theater but rather can pop it on casually for the kids and leave the room.

I wanted to like it. No, I wanted to love it. But dang, “Artemis Fowl” is kind of foul.

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