Like a fairy trapped in a cage, there’s a different movie trapped inside “Artemis Fowl,” struggling to break free of the more conventional trappings of the big, kids-oriented fantasy adventure story that premieres on June 12 on Disney+.
And by the way, there’s a real fairy trapped in a cage in “Artemis Fowl,” along with a whole lot of dwarves, goblins, elves, trolls, the occasional centaur and enough other magical creatures to make a lot of “Harry Potter” fans happy, along with scattered aficionados of, say, “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “His Dark Materials” and even “Star Wars.”
But while an energetic kids’ fantasy with cool creatures fighting each other is probably a reasonable win for Disney’s new premium service in these days before most theaters reopen, it’s hard to watch it as an adult and not wish for something that produced a little more magic of its own.
Based on but dramatically different from the first two Eoin Colfer books in the series of eight young-adult fantasy novels, “Artemis Fowl” is rooted in Irish folk tales and mythology, a beautifully dark and mysterious body of folklore that has inspired haunting films that include John Sayles’ “The Secret of Roan Inish,” Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” and two from the Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon, “The Book of Kells” and “Song of the Sea.”
And behind the camera it has Kenneth Branagh, who as a director may be best known for his Shakespeare adaptations but has also shown a knack for fantasy in recent years with “Thor” and “Cinderella.”
But the best films from Irish folklore and the best films by Branagh don’t typically have to service the action-and-adventure-oriented YA audience the way “Artemis Fowl” does. The long-in-the-works film pays lip service to the power of myth, then settles for the Hollywood substitute, an efficient (though convoluted) plot.
The story is narrated by a bearded, dirtied-up Josh Gad (certainly known to the Disney+ audience as Olaf from the “Frozen” movies), which seems to be a typical calculation: To tell this story about Irish legend, let’s get the least Irish guy we can find, as long as he’s funny and has a Disney pedigree. And yes, he is funny, as always, in his role as Mulch Diggums, a dwarf who’s much too tall to fit in with his kind.
The setup is akin to the “Harry Potter” universe: There are magical creatures all around us (or, mostly, underneath us), but we don’t notice them because they don’t want to be noticed. “Most humans are afraid of gluten,” Mulch explains. “How do you think they’d handle goblins?”
But Artemis Fowl, a celebrated dealer in antiquities who also might be a thief of priceless treasures from museums around the world, knows all about the secret world, and is determined to pass that knowledge along to his son, Artemis Fowl II, when the kid is ready.
To say the young Artemis (played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw) is a prodigy is to underestimate him: He beat the European chess champion in five moves when he was 7, won an architecture competition to build the Dublin opera house when he was 9 and cloned a sheep when he was 10. But he thinks the stories his dad (Colin Farrell) tells him about fairies and trolls are simply fiction – until dad disappears and turns out to have been kidnapped by a cloaked figure who speaks in a sinister croak. (Think Emperor Palpatine if he carried around a green flashlight that he always aimed at his hooded face.)
The baddie wants Artemis to deliver a magical artifact that dad may or may not have hidden in the Fowl mansion – and in short order, the boy learns all his father’s secrets, captures a young fairy who’s on a reconnaissance mission and has to hold off a frontal assault by an army of fairies.
This army is commanded by Commander Julius Root, played by a game Judi Dench, who looks marginally more comfortable than she did in “Cats” but is asked to walk around with David Bowie’s hair circa the 1980s.
All of this seems to presage some kind of wild adventure that travels to places unknown, but in fact the movie stays put – Artemis and his small band of allies, which comes to include the young fairy, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), simply spend the rest of the brisk 90-odd minute running time defending the mansion.
The book frequently focused on greed and on Artemis’ demand for a huge gold ransom, but the movie – at least once you get past the big VFX fights – is more of a human/fairy buddy caper, and a father-son story. (Artemis also has a mother in the book, but is it a surprise that the mom has been killed off in yet another Disney movie?)
At times there’s a real stateliness to Branagh’s directorial style and to Patrick Doyle’s music, as the film moves through burnished, glowing interiors and landscapes for which the term picturesque seems sadly insufficient. It’s as if the director is hoping that a little restraint and beauty can hide some of the silliness, which of course it can’t. Not even close.
And yet the folklore that lies underneath the film remains evocative and occasionally stirring. At times, “Artemis Fowl” can’t help but feel like a pale echo of lines from Yeats’ magnificently haunted poem “The Stolen Child”: “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
It’s not the fault of this film that it can’t approach the beauty and mystery of those lines – Brenda Chapman’s Sundance film “Come Away” used Yeats’ poem but fell well short of capturing its power, too. (At the same festival, Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” didn’t use the poem but did capture some of the power.)
“Artemis Fowl” is trying to be something very different – bigger, beefier, flashier and not as magical. You can’t really blame it for aiming lower, but there’s enough tantalizing promise here to wish that it didn’t.
“Artemis Fowl” opens on Disney+ June 12, 2020.