If co-hosting One Good Thing, a podcast dedicated to finding nice things to say about bad movies, has taught me anything it’s that bad movies are nothing new. Ever since the medium was invented it has been hosted the mediocre as well as the sublime. But with recent critical pariahs like Dolittle and, to a much lesser extent, Rise of Skywalker still fresh in the memory it does seem that Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Artemis Fowl is bad in a very fundamentally modern way.
The story concerns a young boy named Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) whom we are told is a criminal mastermind, though he never seems to break any tangible laws. After his father is kidnapped by an evil Fairy he and an inexplicably large cast of allies must remain in Fowl Manor and research the problem for an hour until the solution falls into their laps, almost literally.
The character of Artemis Fowl is like his world; it feels like a patchwork of more popular elements. He’s got the snide attitude of a Sherlock, the fast quips of a Tony Stark and the unquestionable competency of any one of the socially inept genius detectives that have graced television screens in the past twenty years (house, monk, etc.). He’s on a journey to find a missing parent because that’s always a safe bet in young adult fiction (he’s not even the only one in this story!). You always want you hero to have a relatable goal but also the autonomy within the plot that can only really be brought about by taking out the parents (the Disney way!). He’s ably played by Shaw, but the character is an uninteresting Cliche that we never really get to know.
Here we come to the real problem of Artemis Fowl and it is a plague upon 21st Century cinema that must be recognised and remedied if we are to cultivate nobility and art in our blockbuster entertainment: the narrator must die. Exposition absolutely must become secondary to character. Artemis Fowl rockets through the story, without ever pausing long enough for us to feel any of it. At no stage do characters take a moment to talk about anything that is not relaying story to the audience, even repeating various points. There are entire characters who are introduced by narration, say barely a line and have no impact on the plot. Emotion and meaning is totally lost. The narrator tells us everything we need to know, and many things we do not. Hitchcock once said that a good movie should make sense with the sound off. Why then do we keep making movies that would actually make more sense with the screen off?
It is curious how frequently these exposition heavy films actually have terrible plots. Fowl has a real pacing issue, relaying so much information so steadily throughout the film that it all feels like prologue. At the 90 minute mark it still feels as though we are introducing elements and that the adventure is yet to begin. Perhaps this is because our hero and titular character never actually goes anywhere. The midpoint set-piece of a Troll attacking a wedding and the climactic action of that same troll attacking the house are both totally arbitrary, very much like the opening action of a bond movie. Here they are substitutes for meaningful conflict.
There’s also an unfortunate hollowness to this world. It feels small and not only because it was released on to the small screen, forgoing any real claim to being cinematic. Based on the well-loved young adult novel series by Eoin Colfer, the film fails to make it’s fantastical environments feel lived in. An immense fairy city is a bizarre blend of Blade Runner’s LA and Lord of the Ring’s Riverdale, but it’s mostly just dark rooms populated by people in silly costumes. Getting audiences to invest in a fantasy world is difficult. Many factors have to be correct, but this world falls at the first: It’s not aesthetically pleasing or interesting.
Artemis Fowl should be essential watching. This is exactly how not to make a blockbuster film, especially one aimed at younger audiences. The lack of characterisation, the clinical and lazy approach to storytelling, and the complete lack of any kind of emotional content are very common features of recent bad movies. Tell a story about people. Present some relatable, likeable people and send them on a remarkable journey that actually affects and changes them. One potentially positive outcome of seeing this film is that I am now tempted to return to Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. At least I remember it having ideas.