Artemis Fowl review: Judi Dench makes Disney’s latest fantasy romp a future guilty pleasure

The mischievous glint in her eyes is the film’s only nod to irony and self-awareness. The rest, for better or worse, couldn’t be any more sincere 

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 10 June 2020 21:40
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Artemis Fowl - Teaser Trailer

Dir: Kenneth Branagh. Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Colin Farrell, Judi Dench. 12 cert, 94 mins.

Dame Judi Dench steps out of the shadows, clad in green leather like a post-apocalyptic citizen of Oz. She is Commander Julius Root, an elf of Irish fairytale made flesh. She’s also a cop. With a wisened growl, she faces her adversaries with a cry of, “Top o’ the morning”.

Artemis Fowl, Disney’s take on Eoin Colfer’s popular YA fantasy series, is speckled with this kind of pleasant ludicrousness. Although it was framed as a great loss that the film would skip its theatrical release due to the pandemic, heading straight to Disney+ could be the best thing for it. Instead of facing inevitable – and predicted – box office failure, it now gets to be quietly forgotten and then rediscovered five years down the line as a guilty pleasure.

For much of the film, we’re watching the illustrated confessions of Mulch Diggums (Frozen’s Josh Gad), who’s smothered in layers of coat and beard, looking uncannily like Hagrid. Gad keeps his voice unnaturally low and coarse to match, but it’s hard to chase away thoughts of Olaf with a smoker’s cough. Mulch, a dwarf, is being interrogated by a shadowy MI6 agent, whose genteel lilt is instantly recognisable as the director’s own.

He reveals to us that fairies, trolls, elves, and goblins are all, in fact, real. They live deep underground, hidden away from the humans they once warred with. But their uneasy sense of peace is threatened when a powerful artefact called the Aculos, “a skeleton key for the whole universe”, goes missing. Meanwhile, a famed dealer of antiques and an expert in fairytales, Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell, Disney’s go-to troublesome dad), has disappeared without a trace. The two events are linked. It’s down to Fowl’s 12-year-old polymath son, Artemis II (Ferdia Shaw), to put the pieces together.

Although the film repackages Colfer’s original antihero as a Disney brand do-gooder, Shaw plays him with the emotional chill of a future serial killer. It brings a welcome, if subtle, edge to the film – elsewhere, Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl’s screenplay shows little trust in the audience’s intellect. “Time to believe in fairies. They’re not real… or are they?” Artemis says to himself, in a moment of revelation. He looks as if he’s about to turn to the camera, Dora the Explorer-style, and wait patiently for us to answer. When it comes to casting, Artemis Fowl pays lip service to diversity – the main leads are all white, while Nonso Anozie and Tamara Smart are wasted as Domovoi Butler and his niece Juliet, who work together as his bodyguards (and literal butlers).

The film often works overtime to try and compensate for its flatness. Director Kenneth Branagh – already a Disney veteran, having brought classical elegance to 2011’s Thor and 2015’s Cinderella – has a few tricks up his sleeve. One inventive action sequence sees the camera tumble in and out of the fray. Gad tries his best, but a running gag about the fact he’s a “giant dwarf” – thus standing at the average height for a man – feels especially tired. And the fact he can burrow tunnels by unhinging his jaw, swallowing dirt, and immediately farting it out like an infernal engine? It borders on nightmarish. Then there’s Dench. Sure, she’s adopted the same strange, guttural accent as Gad, and is dressed a little like a Christmas ornament, but the mischievous glint in her eyes is Artemis Fowl’s only nod to irony and self-awareness. The rest, for better or worse, couldn’t be any more sincere.

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