When the coronavirus pandemic closed movie theaters around the world, Disney delayed almost all of their 2020 summer movies, including MulanBlack WidowSoulFree Guy, and Jungle Cruise. For some reason, they decided not to postpone Artemis FowlInstead of opening in theaters in May as scheduled, Disney shifted the film to its Disney+ streaming service.

Now we know why: Artemis Fowl is a complete disaster; a hectic mess of worldbuilding that tries to cram a big chunk of an eight-part book series into a movie that runs less than 90 minutes plus credits. From the look of the finished product, a large portion of the story (along with most of the characters’ motivations) were completely removed, leaving only the action sequences and special effects — neither of which are impressive or exciting enough to justify sitting through the film, even one as short as Artemis Fowl.

The title character, played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, is a self-described “criminal mastermind,” although any actual criminal masterminding must have been among the stuff left on the cutting-room floor. The only remnants of whatever villainy Artemis committed in his literary past are the pair of dark sunglasses he likes to wear and a vaguely anti-authority attitude. Instead, Artemis must figure out how to rescue his father, Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell), after he vanishes during a business trip. The media covering the elder Fowl’s disappearance describe him as a brilliant collector of antiquities and maybe also a criminal mastermind, but his illegal activities are also mentioned and never explored. I’m honestly not sure whether they ever existed at all.

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Instead, Artemis’ quest to rescue his dad brings him face-to-face with an entire society of magical creatures — including elves, dwarves, centaurs, and trolls — who live in a city hidden at the center of the Earth. As evidenced by the image above of Oscar, Emmy, Tony, BAFTA, and Olivier Award winner Judi Dench as Commander Root, these elves possess advanced technology including flying ships and laser guns. Artemis’ plan involves capturing one of the elves, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), and then trying to exchange her for a MacGuffin that is supposedly “the most precious artifact” in the fairy civilization — which is also coveted by the mysterious masked baddie named Opal who’s kidnapped Artemis Sr.

From start to finish, the movie is constant exposition, a lot of it regurgitated by Josh Gad, whose “giant dwarf” Diggums narrates the movie from a jail cell where he recounts the tale of Artemis Fowl to unseen interrogators. Anything notable or interesting about the characters has been wiped away by the frenetic pace. Artemis and his dad have just one montage and a brief dialogue scene together before the latter vanishes. (In their one scene together, Artemis Sr. complains that his son used to believe in magic, to which Artemis Jr. replies “All I really want… is to believe in you.” Oof.) Young Artemis himself gets a single scene with a disapproving guidance counselor to establish his entire personality and backstory. Others, like Dench’s Root, get less than that. At one point, the movie tries to milk the death of a character for a big emotional moment, but the character has said maybe 12 lines over the course of the entire story, so who cares whether they live or die? The people onscreen are nothing more than pawns of the plot, running around for whatever magic gadget the script requires at any given moment.

Even with Gad explaining everything onscreen, so much remains unclear, at least to someone who doesn’t know the Artemis Fowl books — including the stuff Gad’s character does once he actually joins the story trying to retrieve the same contraption everyone else wants. (For the life of me, I have no idea how Diggums went from breaking into Artemis’ house to teaming up with him to stop another character without any dialogue exchanged between the two of them.) Later, the film suddenly adds an elvish military coup into the climactic action sequence. By that point, the movie is already an hour old. Wouldn’t that have been something worth establishing beforehand? Artemis Fowl’s construction is so shoddy it often feels like it was improvised scene by scene as it was shot. (The script is credited to Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl.) How else do you explain spending $100 million on a treasure hunt movie that takes place almost entirely in three rooms of a single house?

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Most viewers’ standards are lower for movies they watch on streaming; it’s easier to give a pass to something included in a $7 monthly subscription than to something you paid $15 or more for. But even by the standards of streaming, Artemis Fowl is junk. It’s shocking it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, a talented filmmaker who has a long track record producing satisfying commercial projects between his more ambitious endeavors. In recent years, he made the first Thor film and the lovely live-action remake of Cinderella for Disney. Even his lesser blockbusters, like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, were at least competent. I would not have thought a director of his caliber was capable of a failure this enormous.

When I was an intern at Tribeca Productions almost 20 years ago, there was a screenplay for an Artemis Fowl movie in the company’s script library. I don’t remember any of its specifics, but I do remember thinking it wasn’t very good — and sure enough, that version of the movie got stuck in development hell for many years, until Disney picked up the property and began work on the film we finally got. I can’t say for certain that any of the previous iterations of the material, including one that would have been directed by Jim Sheridan, would have been any better than this one. All I know for sure is it was not worth the wait.

Additional Thoughts:

-Both Gad and Dench use bizarre, gravelly accents in this movie. They’re so deep and growly and phony that it’s hard to focus on the substance of what they’re talking about because they sound so silly. In their one scene together, Gad quips that they sound “like a pair of hippos with a throat infection,” which is sort of funny but also ... would you want to listen to a pair of hippos with a throat infection for 95 minutes?

-It might be premature to say this now, but I have a feeling Artemis Fowl will be joining this list whenever I update it.

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