Friday, June 12, 2020

Neither Fish Nor ARTEMIS FOWL

Artemis Fowl goes the way of so many middling kids’ fantasy adaptations. It spends more time explaining itself than telling a story, sacrificing legible characterizations, comprehensible world-building, and even wonder itself in service of getting all of its information out there. And then it ends, at just barely 90 minutes, promising more adventures to come. But more what, exactly? Like so many of the bungled YA fantasy adaptations of the past fifteen years — Remember The Fifth Wave and I Am Number Four and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising? — it's an elaborate prologue that theoretically saves all the good stuff for later pictures. And yet what chance is there we’ll get it if there’s nothing to grab on to the first time around? This film, directed at his least Shakespearean and most journeyman workmanlike by Kenneth Branagh in what’s-the-point? Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit mode, adapts Eoin Colfer’s book series about a 12-year-old prodigy who gets tangled up in a magical underground of fairies, dwarves, and trolls. The magical beings want to remain a secret, so, as the film finally kicks into gear, there’s a bit of a tussle when Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) decides to finagle a way to get a magical doohickey in order to rescue his father (Colin Farrel) from menacing mystery abductors. The screenplay takes the premise and squeezes it into over-familiar moves, dusty archetypes, and a plot that seems to have a few screws loose and a number of pages missing. It's opportunity that's missed, too.

There’s a nugget of a fun story there, though, especially as the Fowls’ actions bring a siege from a fantasy army commanded by a tough old elf (Judi Dench, raspy and serious) and wielding sci-fi weapons, a sort of contemporary militarized spin on fairy tales of yore with energy beams and zip-zappers and time-bubbles click-clacked out with rum-pa-pum-pum pacing. But the movie falls into the trap of over-explaining and under-delivering. It begins with what feels like non-stop expository voice over, first from overlapping in-media-res news patter, and then from a gravelly Josh Gad half-joking, half-intoning backstory upon backstory as we get slivers of scenes papered over by his explanations. (It’s also, sadly, not the worst thing Gad will do with his mouth in this picture, given a nasty CGI maw that inhales dirt so he can fire it rapidly out his backside.) Cutting between the world of young Fowl — looking cool as a cucumber in his skinny black tie and glassy-lensed shades, but not exactly selling the emotional stakes — and a plucky young fairy cop (Lara McDonnell), before drawing their stories together, the movie gathers its small suspense. But there’s never a good sense of why the glowing magic doohickey is important or why the villains want it or even who the real villains of the piece are. The more it tells us, the less it makes sense. By the time the movie finds its action — a rampaging troll in a foyer, or some moderately enjoyable visual flourishes when characters get wobbly and elongated falling through bits and blobs of a disintegrating time-stop glob — there’s some fun to be had. But it’s all curiously disconnected from a reason to care, and ends soon enough telling us that there’s more of this to be had. That’s unlikely. The characters never come to convincing life, and there’s never a good sense of where it could or should go from here.

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