There are two key components keeping the theatrical cinema system alive these days: film franchises and kids’ movies.
It’s why almost every new feature aimed at a target audience is virtually guaranteed a sequel or reboot – Hello, “Sonic The Hedgehog” and “Mulan!” – within the first month of release.
At the forefront of this trend for the better part of a decade is Disney, the cinematic monopoly behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars franchise and a plethora of animated children’s films from their home studio as well as Pixar.
Disney’s latest attempt to generate movie revenue – a budding franchise for pre-teens in the mold of “Harry Potter” – dropped on their streaming platform, Disney+, last week after being shifted several times down the release calendar due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s also likely that the Kenneth Branagh directed film would have underperformed at the box office regardless of health concerns as the highly convoluted plot and uneven performances left it as a mixed bag.
Based on a series of novels by Irish author Eoin Colfer, “Artemis Fowl” follows the title character on a quest to steal a missing fairy relic and exchange it with an unknown mystical power who has kidnapped Artemis’s father.
A tale filled with goblins and dwarves and trolls, the film should naturally offer shades of “Lord of the Rings” in a modern setting. But things just ring false from the opening minutes as Josh Gad’s giant dwarf Mulch Diggins is arrested and proceeds to narrate the entire film in flashback, dragging audiences through a series of convoluted events that tie together Colfer’s first two novels.
Newcomer Ferdia Shaw – grandson of Oscar nominee Robert Shaw – takes on the title role with the bravado needed of a child actor playing someone with a genius level IQ, but there’s neither enough charm nor snark in the performance to make the younger Artemis Fowl anything more than a walking contradiction of terms.
Shaw’s Fowl is dismissive yet compassionate, but only when he feels like it. The performance is largely hidden beneath Shaw’s stern sneer, masking the poorly written screenplay that finds Artemis always knowing exactly what to do with very little prompting and rarely out of control of any situation.
Perhaps part of this standoffish persona comes from Shaw replicating the performance of Colin Farrell as best he can, as a son would seek to mimic his distant, yet aggressively sure-of-himself father. As the older Artemis Fowl, Farrell’s limited screen time prevents him from developing any depth to the performance although it’s clear the stage is set for meatier work in a future installment, if Disney so chooses to continue the series.
Dame Judi Dench plays a secondary role as a fairy police commander – with pointy ears to boot – and although the part is far beneath her incredible talents, Dench gives the fairies’ section of the film some needed gravitas and isn’t nearly as atrociously audacious as her turn as Old Deuteronomy in last year’s musical “Cats.”
Gad offers the strangest performance of the entire cast, woefully miscast in Hagrid from “Harry Potter” cosplay but with a gravelly Batman voice as Diggins. For a film that leans heavily into the world of the unbelievable, Gad sticks out like a sore thumb as a force that pulls viewers out of their suspension of disbelief and reminds them very clearly that they’re watching mediocre cinematic “Dungeons and Dragons” fodder.
Branagh’s third turn with a Disney franchise after 2011’s “Thor” and 2015’s “Cinderella” proves conclusively that the Irish filmmaker can’t successfully make the transition from serious period drama to playful adaptation. “Artemis Fowl” lacks the intensity and darkness that Alfonso Cuaron brought to the “Harry Potter” series nor the brightness and charm that Taika Waititi invigorated the third “Thor” installment with.
While a second run at the series feels almost inevitable at this point given the nature of the film business, a massive injection of life and spirit into the followup will be necessary to make Artemis’ first adventure feel anything less than perfunctory.
Decent enough for children in need of something new to watch this summer on a streaming service parents probably have subscribed to already, “Artemis Fowl” is a watchable, yet unmemorable film.