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There is, to my knowledge, no evidence that the Walt Disney Company was so mortified at the thought of releasing Artemis Fowl to theaters that it engineered SARS-CoV-2 and triggered a global pandemic solely to have a reasonable excuse to dump the film to the Disney+ streaming service. But one cannot help but wonder.

The film is an adaption of the first book in a series of YA fantasy novels by Eoin Colfer, and I have not read them, but my understanding is that the movie (adapted by Conor McPherson & Hamish McColl) has removed precisely those details which give the series most of its personality and flavor. To which I must wonder: to what end? Not to make it more globally appealing and exciting: the film, as presently constituted, is a swampy mush of the most trite, hackneyed YA fantasy elements imaginable. Almost like if you take out all of a thing's personality, what remains is impersonal boilerplate that seems hellbent on providing its target audience of tween children with clichés that even they should be able to recognise as lazy paint-by-numbers storytelling - it's basically like a particularly vulgar Harry Potter rip-off that tries to hide the worst of its theft by mashing it into the framework of Men in Black.

We start our tale in Ireland, and a very generic, trite Ireland it is, too, considering that Colfer, McPherson, and director Kenneth Branagh are all themselves Irish. Here, a whole phalanx of reporters has descended on Fowl Manor, owing to the discovery of a great cache of stolen artifacts. Amidst the general chaos, the police take into custody a large mountain of a man who is such a transparent clone of Harry Potter's Hagrid that I'm a little stunned that nobody involved was embarrassed enough to put the brakes on it: this is Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), who offers to tell his captors the story of what exactly happened over the last few days, but the way he talks makes it extremely clear that he knows he's actually the narrator of a children's movie. And that will be our framework for the rest of the movie: shots of Mulch, glowering right into the camera, in high-contrast, low-lighting black-and-white that represents one of the boldest flourishes of style in the film, as well as one of the dumbest; it's eventually confirmed to be security camera footage, but regardless, it serves to make the character look looming and threatening and angry, more of a murderous psychopath in a crime thriller than the amusing, fantastical storyteller the script clearly planned for him to be.

The story Mulch tells is... frankly, I don't know that I should dignify it with the word "story". It's a bunch of stuff, some of which has narrative momentum, much of which does not. The present owner of Fowel Manor, Artemis Fowl, Sr. (Colin Farrel), has a 12-year-old son also named Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), and it is Artemis Jr. with whom we'll be concerning ourselves, when we're not concerned with other things. These other things are found in an underground city populated by all the magical beings of Irish folklore, the details of which the elder Fowl has drilled into the younger's head through years of storytelling. Thus little Artemis is in theory ready when a crisis breaks out among the fairies, when a MacGuffin has gone missing - a MacGuffin that will permit a profoundly nondescript villain to destroy the world. The fairy secret service, the LEPrecons, has dispatched a promising young officer, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), to find the whatsit, and Artemis manages to trap her in the manor, knowing at this point only that his father has gone missing and the fairy world has something to do with it. In fact, he is in the clutches of the nondescript villain, for nondescript reasons. If anything in this paragraph makes sense to you, I'm probably doing a bad job of summarising it.

The middle part of the film involves the fairy quest to rescue Holly, an enormous chunk of plot that ends up having no stakes and no reason to be in the movie at all, though I gather it was the main focus of the plot of the book, and Artemis was expressly an antihero. Here, he does not have nearly the definition to be an antihero, or even just a regular hero. He is a bland little bit of nothing, constantly defined in dialogue as being a world-class precocious genius, though in the plot of the film, he is never called upon to demonstrate this. Basically, he just wears magic-blocking sunglasses and looks smug, and thus manages to ride out the clock until the third act occurs.

Artemis Fowl is remarkably devoid of any, like, content; perhaps to compensate it is a noisy, cluttered mess. I have limited admiration for Branagh, but he's never been so eager to completely bury any trace of artistic personality, not even in the inexcusable Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. This is pure hyperactive effects movie boilerplate: a nervous, restless camera that keeps darting through spaces without doing much to let us see and enjoy them, lots of cutting to no clear end, shiny colors that have been sapped of any vitality. The last is the worst of it: the film is hollow and chintzy even as a visually busy fantasy spectacle. This wasn't a cheap movie, but it definitely looks cheap, particularly in the costumes that feel slapped together from plastic and pleather. It's a rare treat to encounter a film in which the all-CGI creatures look considerably more weighty and realistic than their physical co-stars, but the costumes are so shitty and fake, this achieves that pretty often.

Inside this hollow-looking, oddly empty and grey world of magical beings, the film dumps a mass of insufficient characters: the worst of these is undoubtedly Juliet Butler (Tamara Smart), the niece of the Fowl family manservant Dom Butler (Nonso Anozie); he at least glowers and reacts to danger, but I couldn't explain what the film is doing with her that it couldn't do with a rock that had googly eyes glued onto it. Mostly, you wouldn't even need the rock. The most garish is the head of the LEPrecans, Commander Root, a staggeringly misguided piece of hammy kitsch perpetrated by Judi Dench, friend of Branagh, and a master performer who has seemingly decided of late to re-make her career as a giant piece of camp. It's a breathtakingly obnoxious performance, founded on an accent that is the worst thing any Englishwoman has done to the Irish since Margaret Thatcher died. She talks like Lucky the Leprechaun after a lifetime of chain smoking. At one point, she growls "top of the morning" as an action movie quip. And she does this with an unfailing "I'm over this shit" movie cop scowl on her face, as unyielding and exaggerated as a Noh mask. It's quite possibly the most bizarre work in Dench's legendary career, even more ludicrous than her solemn treatment of the extraordinarily nerdy nonense ofThe Chronicles of Riddick, the obvious standard-bearer for Judi, What The Actual Fuck before 2019 (she filmed Artemis Fowl before Cats, though the latter ended up releasing earlier. I am mystified to report that Artemis Fowl finds her giving substantially the gaudier performance).

But I shouldn't linger on Dench - that might suggest that there's something playfully so-bad-it's-good in its excessive po-faced fantasy cheesiness. On the contrary. There's nothing fun about Artemis Fowl whatsoever: it's a messy story in which virtually nothing actually happens, though several characters seem constantly petrified that something might; it's too washed out to be excitingly garish and too garish to be unironically attractive; it has inscrutable characters played badly; it relies far too much on the inherent beefy menace of everyone's favorite movie tough guy, Josh Gad. It is, in fact, perilously close to being devoid of any real entertainment value whatsoever, which is simply ridiculous for something that began as a story about a 12-year-old James Bond villain fighting an army of fairy cops.