Disney+ premieres 'Artemis Fowl' with a Disneyfied plot, too much CGI — and Judi Dench

It’s too bad the filmmakers felt the need to uncomplicate what was originally a pretty complicated young adult story about morality.
Image: Artemis Fowl
The new Artemis Fowl is still a bit of a jerk, but he’s lost his edge.Nicola Dove / Disney
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By Ani Bundel

As theaters begin to tentatively reopen for business, one film won’t be debuting in these 25 percent capacity spaces: Disney’s “Artemis Fowl.” Disney moved it to streaming on Disney+ for subscribers in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, even as it rescheduled premieres for most of its other spring and early summer slate. That’s because Disney assumes it can still make decent blockbuster-level money on those other films. “Artemis Fowl” going to Disney+ was an indicator the company had deeper concerns.

Disney assumes it can still make decent blockbuster-level money on those other films. “Artemis Fowl” going to Disney+ was an indicator the company had deeper concerns.

Unlike competitor Universal, which took “Trolls World Tour” and moved it to a video-on-demand release on the same day as its original theatrical release, Disney still plans to release most of its blockbuster films in theaters: “Mulan” will now debut on July 24; “New Mutants” moved to August. Taking no chances, “Black Widow,” Disney’s Marvel blockbuster, moved to November, along with Pixar’s “Soul.” Even “Artemis Fowl” changed dates from May 29 to June 12.

But “Trolls World Tour” pulled in about $100 million on video-on-demand sales alone. So why isn’t Disney following suit? The answer is Disney+, of course. Universal does not (yet) have a nationwide streaming service. Disney, on the other hand, cannot hope to charge $20 per 48-hour rental to the same people who already pay $6.99 a month for a service scrambling for content. And with this adaptation of “Artemis Fowl,” chances are audiences wouldn’t pay for it anyway.

“Artemis Fowl” struggled to get to the big screen even before the pandemic. Based on Eoin Colfer's hit 2001 young adult series, the story follows titular 12-year-old Artemis, a genius with criminal aspirations, as he kidnaps a spunky elf named Holly Short in hopes of attaining a giant ransom in gold. Instead, his plan backfires and he finds himself at war with the entire fairy world. Artemis is a terribly spoiled, bored rich jerk of a child — imagine if the “Harry Potter” books starred Draco Malfoy, where the closest thing to “lesson learned” is that his misadventures lead him to rethink at least some of his faults.

With the magical child/wizard genre in full swing two decades ago, the movie rights to “Artemis” were picked up before the book was even published. But this isn’t a feel-good story, and it’s not super surprising that an entire string of directors and writers came and went. The project finally moved to Disney in 2013, and into the hands of Kenneth Branagh. Recognizing the deeply Irish roots of Colfer’s world, Branagh has done his best with it, including a cast that includes Dame Judi Dench and Colin Farrell. But there was one thing he was never going to be fix: The Disneyfying of the story.

The new Artemis Fowl is still a bit of a jerk, but he’s lost his edge. Instead, Disney has done what Disney always does and made this a story about parent issues. Now instead of being merely absent, Artemis Fowl Sr. (Farrell) has been kidnapped by the fairy world, giving his wayward son a reason for his anti-elf war. This also allows the film to go wild with CGI, pitting Fowl’s “Iron Man”-level technology against Dench’s fairy magic, without that pesky problem of a villainous lead character. It’s not the worst two hours of entertainment (especially with mute and pause buttons near at hand). But it’s not the next “Wreck-It Ralph.”

One has to feel a little bad for Dench, who has now been in two over-CGI’d messes in the span of six months. But the worst character by far is Josh Gad’s faux-Hagrid narrator, whose endless gross-out humor is exhausting, yet inescapable given the twisting plot.

The word “Disneyfication” exists in the dictionary because the company has been doing this to stories since Snow White sang “I’m Wishing” back in 1937.

It’s too bad the filmmakers felt the need to uncomplicate what was originally a pretty complicated story about morality. The word “Disneyfy” exists in the dictionary because the company has been doing this to stories since Snow White sang “I’m Wishing” back in 1937. When they did it to “Mary Poppins,” P.L. Travers famously threw an entire fit, which Disney then Disneyfied into a Tom Hanks movie. Because that is what it does.

But one of the ironies of the internet era is that it’s not so easy to Disneyfy things for audiences anymore. The fans are online and they will howl, loudly, as they have done after every trailer “Artemis Fowl” has released. This savvier audience demands a smarter, better story. Thus, since that first trailer, Disney has been quietly trying to figure out how to release “Artemis Fowl” with the least amount of online blowback possible, with the date slipping back from 2019 to May 2020 and now June on Disney+.

Disney’s decision will probably work in its favor. Though restrictions are lifting, families are still cooped up at home, and the numbers of COVID-19 cases are rising again. Chances are good that even millennial fans who would never pay to see the film in theaters will watch at home, hate-tweeting away. The result may very well be trending hashtags and high viewership numbers for the House of Mouse to crow about. For a company that most of the slots in the highest-grossing films last year, this is a face-saving measure. Hopefully, after this, we’ll never hear from Disney’s “Artemis Fowl” again.