Alibi V.29 No.27 • July 2-8, 2020 

Idiot Box

Crying Fowl

Artemis Fowl on Disney+

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

With movie studios scrambling to figure out what to do with their product now that movie theaters are shut down due to COVID-19, viewers sort of assumed they’d get a lot more access to feature films via streaming while stuck at home this summer. That was the promise, anyway, when Vin Diesel’s ignominious action flick Bloodshot closed out 2020’s moribund box office back in March. But so far Hollywood has pushed its big-ticket items (Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet, Top Gun: Maverick, Mulan) back and back and back. (Right now, Tenet is expected to restart theatrical releasing on Aug. 12.) And all we’ve seen on streaming are mediocre kiddie offerings like Trolls World Tour, Scoob! and My Spy—none of which were exactly gonna light up the summer box office anyway.

Following the trend Disney+ snuck the fantasy feature Artemis Fowl onto its streaming service on June 12. That isn’t the most prestigious place for a big-budget franchise-starter to end up premiering. Then again, Artemis Fowl was something of a lame duck to begin with. The $125 million film, based on the popular kids’ book series by Eoin Colfer, has been rolling around Hollywood development hell since at least 2001. In 2011 Disney took over and spent years trying to figure out what to do with it. The finished film was supposed to be released in August of last year, but the company kept shifting theatrical release dates until giving up this May.

Despite its literary history, Artemis Fowl reads like a generic mash-up of mystical YA series Harry Potter and Percy Jackson (with a dash of Men In Black for good measure). Loosely following a handful of character and plot threads to be found in Colfer’s books, the film introduced audiences to the titular 12-year-old. In the books he’s portrayed as a calculatingly amoral genius, a self-serving pre-teen superthief-in-training who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. In the film, as played by newcomer Ferdie Shaw, he’s a personality-free know-it-all who lives in a fabulous Irish castle, is an international chess master and cloned a sheep at age 10 (like ya do).

One day Artemis’ father (Colin Farrell, who doesn’t have much to do here) disappears, and it’s immediately discovered that he was an international art thief who stole countless ancient treasures. Turns out he’s only been “protecting” these artifacts, all of which are actually magical. Unfortunately, the senior Mr. Fowl has been kidnapped by a (literally) faceless bad guy. The evil villain here is so mysterious and ill-defined that no one is even clear if they’re male or female. (The character is played by uncredited Vietnamese actres Hong Chau, who I hope didn’t tell her parents to get dressed up for the premiere.) Our villain uses the kidnapping to blackmail young Artemis Fowl (via a phone call) into stealing an all-powerful magical artifact from the kingdom of fairies. (Why the villain didn’t kidnap the 12-year-old son and blackmail the highly skilled father into stealing the object is … not addressed.)

So, yeah, fairies (and other mythical creatures like trolls and centaurs) are real. They live in this crazy, high-tech underground city, dress like they’re in a Tron sequel and serve as a sort of mystical superspy strikeforce fighting the forces of evil—all hidden for centuries from the oblivious eyes of normal human society. Anyway, Artemis realizes that the mystical thingamajig the villain wants is actually in a safe in his living room, so he doesn’t even need to leave the house to find it. In fact, pretty much the entirety of the film takes place in the Fowl mansion. A massive battalion of heavily armed fairies (led by Judy Dench—who, to her credit, doesn’t look at all embarrassed to be here) stages a siege on Atemis’ house, trapping him inside—at which point the film more or less becomes a frantic, CGI-stuffed remake of Home Alone.

I’m just going to spoil the entire film by saying that eventually, Artemis gets the magical whatchamacallit out of the safe. (Actually, he tricks someone else into doing it.) And since it can apparently do anything, he immediately uses it to teleport his dad out of captivity halfway around the world, thus putting an end to the career of what could be the lamest villain in the history of film. (Honestly, I don’t even know the baddie’s name, but they suuuck at their job.)

Artemis Fowl is directed by Kenneth Branagh, who took his high-tone Hamlet/Henry V skills and gave Marvel’s Thor (and Disney’s Cinderella) a certain mythopoetic sheen. But not even he can add enough razzle-dazzle to distract from this glittering mess of a script. Sorry that home schooling sucks, kids. Now home entertainment does too.

Artemis Fowl is available now for streaming on Disney+.