‘Artemis Fowl’ really wants to be the next Harry Potter

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“Artemis Fowl” isn’t an unqualified good egg, but it’s perfectly adequate, and the best of the kid-friendly movies redirected to streaming by coronavirus — a low bar, admittedly, after “Trolls World Tour” and “Scoob!” Adapted from popular books, this busy, hectic film races to build an ornate world, and winds up feeling like it’s jumping to “franchise” status before getting on its cinematic feet.

 

Indeed, the movie’s ending — after a mere 94 minutes — leaves so much business unfinished that it’s pretty obvious this whole exercise was conceived with visions of Harry Potter dancing in executives’ heads. How those plans line up with a Disney+ release — and for that matter, how the studio will assess whether to proceed — is a puzzle that’s almost more interesting than the film itself.
Basically joining the story in progress, director Kenneth Branagh puts some of his experience on “Thor” to use, both in the bountiful special effects and the construction of a visually dazzling fantasy world.
The basic premise is as old as the spires of Asgard, with a 12-year-old boy (Ferdia Shaw in the title role) being tasked with a fantastic challenge: saving his father (Colin Farrell) from a threat seemingly plucked from fables and fairy tales.
The elder Fowl, it turns out, has raised the boy in Ireland while filling his head with stories about fairies and trolls, all of which comes in handy when dad gets abducted. Artemis — christened a “criminal mastermind” — must find a mystical object, the Aculos, in order to secure his freedom.
That forces the lad not only to believe all that folklore he was taught but put those lessons to use, with some remarkable help from a visiting fairy Holly (Lara McDonnell) and an oversized dwarf (Josh Gad, literally chewing up scenery).
In the early going, Branagh (working from a screenplay by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, derived from Eoin Colfer’s book) pretty successfully sucks the audience into the magic and mystery, playing the action at a more operatic level than most kids fare.
By midway through, the action revs up and the plotting becomes more haphazard, mostly feeling like one of those live-action Disney Channel movies (see “Descendants”), only with better supporting actors — including Farrell, Judi Dench and Nonzo Anozie — and on steroids. Yes, there’s a lot of ground to cover, but after hasty introductions, the characters scarcely have a chance to breathe.
It’s a bit of a shame, since the elements are intriguing, starting with the idea of a boy genius, as we’re told right off the bat: “Do not underestimate the kid,” Gad’s Mulch Diggums says, narrating the story in flashback.
Disney, however, might have overestimated the material (initially, anyway) to the extent that it’s hoping “Artemis Fowl” will break through amid a host of similarly themed fare — adapted for television as well as film — in a theatrical setting, before settling on its Disney+ debut.
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Branagh deserves credit for trying to bring a mix of seriousness and excitement to the material, but finally feels like he’s been forced into a kind of shorthand by the need to shoehorn in so much of it.
That’s a drawback, in theory, that could be improved upon should “Artemis Fowl” impress subscribers enough to merit a sequel, and slow its roll a bit. If it doesn’t, score this as another case of a studio coveting a golden goose and making the mistake of counting its chickens before they’re hatched.

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