Review: A movie-stealing Josh Gad elevates 'Artemis Fowl' from forgettable kid fantasy
Disney is chock-full of comic book superheroes and galactic good guys but lacks its own Harry Potter. The fantasy adventure “Artemis Fowl,” based on Eoin Colfer’s young-adult novels and bypassing movie theaters because of coronavirus, marks a decent if unspectacular effort to give Mickey Mouse's new streaming service its own kid-friendly franchise.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Fowl” (★★½ out of four; rated PG; streaming Friday on Disney+) centers on its 12-year-old genius title character (Ferdia Shaw), a rebellious kid who comes from a long line of criminal masterminds, and introduces a hidden underground world of very powerful law-enforcing fairies.
It’s a fairly entertaining yet familiar narrative that’ll give tweens and teens a change of pace from bingeing “High School Musical” and “Descendants” flicks this summer. “Artemis Fowl" succeeds best, though, at giving “Frozen” mainstay Josh Gad a role to sink his teeth into – or in this case, freaky large jowls great for digging – that’s not a singing animated snowman.
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Gad’s bearded and dirty Mulch Diggums is an overgrown dwarf with a penchant for thievery who doubles as the narrator for the Irish-tinged story. Artemis is a brilliant little dude who's big on bespoke black suits but not authority. Bigger problems than his attitude at school arise when his father (Colin Farrell) is nabbed by a shadowy figure named Opal. To get dad back, Artemis has to pay a hefty price: Opal wants the Aculos, a magical artifact tied to the fairies, as ransom, and along the way the kid gets a crash course in the fantastical, plus finds enemies and allies alike among them.
Judi Dench breaks out a very strange, Batman-ish growl as Commander Root, the fairy leader of the Lower Elements Police division LEPRecon (get it?) who wants to keep this entire situation from revealing too much to the humans up above. One of her lot, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), first runs afoul of Artemis and later becomes a friend who fights alongside the kid’s loyal bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) and the big guy's sister Juliet (Tamara Smart), plus ne’er-do-well Mulch.
Gad’s insecure kleptomaniac is by far the most enjoyable oddball in the entire “Fowl” lineup – and not just because he distends his mouth to unorthodox proportions to burrow into locales for subterfuge like a mole-man James Bond. Gad brings a charming edge to Mulch’s unpredictable, sarcastic personality that’s, unfortunately, missing from his cohorts, including Artemis himself. Colfer’s main character has been Disney-fied from the scheming antihero in the books; here, he’s a wide-eyed youngster who’s way too strait-laced to be from a family of “criminal masterminds.” (Without saying too much, they’re not that bad.)
But Artemis does work as a sunglasses-clad gateway into a mythology that’s thankfully pretty inviting. Branagh doesn’t overdo it with the exposition: Those with the barest working knowledge of fantasy will be totally fine diving in, and there’s enough action, including an all-out siege at Artemis’ swanky home Fowl Manor, to keep the plot moving.
Rather than being a massive foul-up, “Artemis Fowl” is a sufficient spycraft fantasy that could benefit from the inevitable sequel, and Gad proves once again to be the Mouse House’s Dwayne Johnson, a rock-solid personality who makes everything around him better.
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