Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Film Review: Artemis Fowl

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I want you to imagine going to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night, as I did.  When the credits rolled, even though we had been in the theater for more than three hours, there were people who said out loud, "What?  That's it?"  As great as that movie is, it is incomplete because it is only the first chapter of a larger trilogy.

Now, imagine instead of ending with the breaking of the Fellowship, the movie ends right at the Council of Elrond when the Fellowship is formed.  Or better yet, imagine the movie ends right after the four hobbits make it across Buckleberry Ferry.

That is what it is like to watch Artemis Fowl.

I have to say at the outset that I am almost wholly ignorant of the book series on which the movie is based.  How faitfully the plot, themes, and characters are translated into film, I have no idea.

The story centers around Artemis Fowl Jr. (Ferdia Shaw).  He is a precocsious junior high genious living in an Irish castle with his father Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell).  The father travels extesnively and trains his son on the lore of the fairies.  Young Artemis is attended to by the bodyguard/butler Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) who brings on his niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) to help.  Things take a turn when the elder Artemis is kidnapped by a mysterious figure who demands that Artemis retrieve something dcalled the Aculos in exchange for his father's release.  Young Artemis does not know what the Aculous is or that it has recently been stolen from Haven City, the underground land of the faries.  In this underground civilization, the magical folk keep their existence a secret from the humans.  One fairy in particular, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), wants to investigate the death of her father.  While visiting the place of his death, she is captured by Artemis and this sets off a series of events leads to a large scale confrontation at the Fowl Castle.

This movie has a lot of elements in its favor: it has a built in audience from a popular book series, it has one of the best directors working in movies today (Kenneth Bragnagh), and the backing of Disney's entire arsenal of movie-making wonders.

And as much as I liked it, the movie never really soared.

The main problem is the one stated at the outset: the movie feels incomplete.  MINOR SPOILER THIS PARAGRAPH.  Almost the entire movie takes place at Fowl Castle, with only occasional diversions elsewhere.  Containig a story to one location is not a sin.  But everything felt like it was building to a wider story that never materialized.  When the story at the castle was finally resolved, I kept waiting for the final act to begin, only to realize that it had already passed.  

It is a big mistake that studios make by turning the first movie in a potential series into the first act of a story.  The original Star Wars famously starts in Episode IV because George Lucas thought that it was the only one of the episodes that could stand on its own without require a sequel or a prequel to be enjoyed.  Could you imagine if that first Star Wars ended before Luke got off of Tatooine?  The original Iron Man is a complete movie that teases something larger.  It was okay for The Fellowship of the Ring to end where it did because the following two films were already a part of the accepted package.

But I don't know Artemis Fowl.  I need a more complete arc before I can get invested.

The second major flaw is the casting of the lead.  Shaw looks like a young Matt Damon and he is perfectly decent for a child actor.  I tend to give child actors a lot more leeway, since they are asked to do something at a level that most people need years of experience to pull off.  I found the venom loosed on Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace appauling.  Shaw's performance isn't bad.  But Artemis is such charismatic and intelligent character.  He has to believeably outsmart his adversaries at every turn.  Unfortunately, Shaw is not up for this enormous task.  This is especially evident when he is paired up with McDonnell, who absolutely shines as Holly.  She displays so much energy, emotion, and charisma that I wished the movie was about her and not Artemis.

The rest of the cast is fine.  Farrell may have fairy blood in him because he hasn't seemed to age in twenty years and is still has a strong screen presence.  Josh Gad has a fun turn as a "giant dwarf" who becomes a part of Artemis' world.  Dame Judy Dench looks haggared and bored, but I assume she is dealing with the fallout of being in CATS.

Bragnagh's longtime musical collaborator Patrick Doyle elevates the material with his epic score.  Branagh does an excellent job with the look and feel of the movie.  His visuals are sweeping and exciting.  It is difficult to come up with a new and compelling take on the fantasy world that has not been covered by Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones.  But Artemis Fowl, sets up an intriguing and fun hidden world that is geared to a younger audience than the above mentioned franchises.  There is an element of whimsy to the fairy world that works in all of its silly fun.

As a Catholic, it is was incredibly annoying how they incorporated "The Irish Blessing" into the story.  The traditional Irish Blessing goes:

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

In the movie, Artemis' father always ends all of his stories with the blessing.  Only in the movie they replace "may God hold you in the palm of His hand," with "May a friend be always near."  I have no idea if this is in the original book or it was innovation of the movie to be more "inclusive," but it seems like a vulgar desecration of a prayer.  It would be like praying "Hail Mary, a friend is with you, special are you among women and special is whoever it is in your womb."  I understand not wanting to explicitly bring up God, even if you are a Christian fantasy writer like Tolkien or Rowling.  But to gut God out of something explicitly Christian to use in your story seems very disrespectful.

I've noticed a lot of venom thrown at this movie and I think it is unwarranted.  It is not bad film.  It is simply held from greatness due to its incompleteness.

And even though this first film did not knock it out of the park, I wouldn't mind revisiting these characters in a sequel.


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