You can see, through the morass of visual effects and narrative short cuts in “Artemis Fowl,” what the folks at Disney were trying to get out of Eion Colfer’s book series: a fast-moving fantasy adventure franchise that could become the next “Harry Potter.”
That’s why Disney invested nearly 20 years in development, after buying the rights to Colfer’s first book before it was published in 2001. Such producers as Robert De Niro and Harvey Weinstein have been attached at different points. (De Niro’s name is still in the credits; Weinstein’s was removed when sexual assault allegations surfaced in 2017.) It was finally to be released in theaters two weeks ago, until the coronavirus pandemic shut down the theaters, and the film was shunted off to the Disney+ streaming service.
Disney+ turns out to be a better home than theaters for this overbaked action adventure. The rushed plot structure and mountain of special effects never give director Kenneth Branagh room to let us get to know the characters or get a handle on Colfer’s world-building. The pause button is Branagh’s friend, especially when parents have to explain to the kids — or vice versa — what’s happening.
The title character, played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh, is introduced to us as a 12-year-old genius who relates more to Albert Einstein than the other kids in his school. He pines to spend time with his globe-hopping father, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell), at their mansion on the Irish coast, Fowl Manor (a pun that goes begging).
When the senior Artemis leaves on another trip, young Artie and his bodyguard/best friend, Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie), must deal with the hordes of reporters outside. That’s when Artie learns that Dad is accused of using his antiquities business as the cover for a career as a master thief of artifacts around the world.
But a mass of TV crews is the least of the Fowl family’s problems. Artie gets a call that Dad is being held hostage, and the kidnapper’s demand is something called the Aculoss. Domovoi then shows Artie his father’s hidden lair, and generations of Fowl family research into the secret world of fairies living below the earth’s surface.
Down in the fairy headquarters of Haven City, the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance squad — or L.E.P. Recon (a pun that should have gone begging) — scrambles into action, led by the crusty Commander Root (Judi Dench, in the second-most ridiculous costume she’s worn in the last year, after her robe in “Cats”). Root must wrangle a young (she’s 84, which is young for fairies) squad member, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), who wants to go to the surface to clear her father’s name. We are told that Beechwood Short is accused of stealing the Aculoss, a most powerful fairy device, in a conspiracy with the humans — namely, Artemis Sr.
The fairies — who, we’re shown, keep the world safe from bad magical creatures, then flashy-thing the humans’ memories, a la “Men in Black” — soon are in a standoff with Artie and Domovoi, after Artie has taken Holly as a prisoner. A lot is happening all at once in this movie, but none of it seems to matter, to the characters onscreen or, ultimately, to us.
It’s too bad, because Branagh (who’s got another Hercule Poirot mystery, “Death on the Nile,” on deck once the release schedule returns to normal) has a lot of good raw material to work with here. Walsh, in his first movie, is devilishly charming, and McDonnell is such a plucky young actor that she can go toe-to-toe with Dench and make a good impression. Josh Gad, as the dwarf criminal Mulch Diggums, literally chews the scenery (he digs tunnels by eating dirt), but he’s engaging as the story’s narrator.
The script, by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, mashes together two of Colfer’s eight books, and is too cramped to be anything other than a breakneck chore. In the unlikely event Disney tries to continue the “Artemis Fowl” franchise this movie’s conclusion dutifully tees up, here’s hoping young Artemis can find a minute to enjoy being the smartest person in the room.
A pre-teen genius uncovers a world of fairy magic and tries to stop a war between that world and ours, in this uneven attempt at launching an action-adventure franchise.
Where • Streaming on Disney+.
When • Beginning Friday, June 12.
Rated • PG for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor.
Running time • 94 minutes.