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Movie Review: “Artemis Fowl”

Ever since it hit shelves, Eoin Colfer’s young-adult novel “Artemis Fowl” was destined to be a movie. I first picked up the series as a preteen, two or three volumes in, and was immediately hooked by its urban-fantasy trappings and underlying moral ambiguity.

The plot of the first book—described by the author as “Die Hard with fairies”—is simultaneously straightforward and inventive. Twelve-year-old genius criminal kingpin Artemis Fowl discovers that the mythological creatures of Irish folklore are real, kidnaps (with the help of massive bodyguard Domovoi Butler) a fairy reconnaissance officer named Holly Short, and demands a ransom. The fairy realm subsequently lays siege to Fowl Manor, sending in dwarf tunneling expert Mulch Diggums and a bloodthirsty tusked troll just starving for human flesh. And in by far the book’s best moment, a mace-wielding Butler dons an ancient suit of armor and goes toe-to-toe with the ravening beast.

This is the kind of story—filled with action, drama, creative imagery, and exciting set pieces—that should’ve been almost impossible to mess up on the screen. But somehow Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation, originally intended for theatrical release and then dumped unceremoniously onto Disney+, manages to blow it again, and again, and again.

The version of the story we see onscreen bears no resemblance to Colfer’s book. The film opens with Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) surfing off the coast of Ireland—bizarre, given that the books describe him as a scrawny preteen who wouldn’t know a bench press from a barbell. Artemis’s father (Colin Farrell) is a collector of fairy technology who clues Artemis in to the hidden world—no painstaking investigation required. Soon, Artemis’s father ends up kidnapped by the villainous pixie Opal Koboi, who spends the entire film stalking around in her lair muttering ominous platitudes (rather like an old Bibleman villain). This is the impetus for Artemis’s kidnapping of Holly, which in turn sparks an attack from fairy Commander Root (an oddly cast Judi Dench) and her team. As it turns out, Opal is after a mysterious fairy gadget called the Aculos (though it might’ve just been called “the MacGuffin”) whose function is never quite made clear, but that Artemis’s father somehow managed to purloin from the fairies at a prior point.

Confused yet? I sure am, and I’ve read the source material. But it’s not the viewer’s fault—the script is so bad that I can only describe it as what might result if the first two novels in the series were run through a shredder, the pieces were pasted together into something resembling a narrative, and then a Disney executive spilled coffee on the script and just threw half the pages away.

It is almost impossible to tally the ways in which this film goes wrong, but I will do my best to recount some of them.

  • The film opens with almost a solid fifteen minutes of “tell, don’t show” exposition-via-narration. Nothing is left to the audience to discover.
  • Remember the sacred “Book of the Fairies” that Artemis has to find and decode at the start of the novel? Nah, none of that here.
  • MI6 somehow knows about the existence of fairies. In any coherent movie, this would be an absolute franchise game-changer, but here it’s just…dropped.
  • The fairy legions’ attack on Fowl Manor begins when they roll in a full battalion of D-Day-style troop transports and battle hovercraft. They’re armed to the teeth with guns and grenades galore. But instead of mounting a real onslaught, they decide to send a recon force of six or seven up to the front gate. Artemis and Butler knock down three or four of them, and the rest retreat. Then the fairies just give up and we hear no more from them.
  • Somehow Holly and Artemis magically become friends—and later co-belligerents—despite the fact that he’s imprisoned her. There’s no ransom subplot.
  • The emotional heart of the first book is Artemis’s relationship with his mother, who’s suffered from mental illness since his father’s disappearance. Here, Artemis’s mom is just dead.
  • Butler (Nonso Anozie) never once suits up to fight the troll. In fact, his competence resembles that of Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Repeatedly wheezing and struggling to get up when knocked down, Butler is not clearly capable of performing the duties expected of a typical bodyguard. (It might be time to lay off the burritos, sir.)
  • The troll in this movie looks like an orc who strayed out of the 2016 “Warcraft” movie. In a fine example of CGI gone wrong, he is also functionally weightless. And he doesn’t even have any tusks.
  • Butler’s “niece” Juliet (Tamara Smart)—in the books, his sister—spends the entire film in the kitchen making sandwiches for our male heroes. I am not joking.
  • Artemis’s announcement by film’s end that he is now a “criminal mastermind” is positively risible. Unless the Irish justice system operates very differently than any legal regime I know, Artemis never once breaks the law in the course of this movie.
  • The last shot of the film depicts Artemis, his father, Holly, Butler, and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) flying on a helicopter into the sunset. This couldn’t be more different from the snarky, somewhat bleak coda of the novel. “Artemis Fowl” is not a freakin’ Avengers movie.

To be clear, I don’t have any inherent objection to films deviating from their source books—“Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” showed that this could be done brilliantly. But “Artemis Fowl” so egregiously abandons its foundational premises, in ways that totally contravene the spirit of the series, that it can barely be said to be an “Artemis Fowl” adaptation at all. The books recount, at bottom, the story of a sociopathic but brilliant child who slowly and painstakingly learns to love and sacrifice. They are not, in any sense, tales of a sympathetic young hero just trying to save his dad.

And even beyond that, Branagh’s bastardized version of the “Artemis Fowl” story is so cinematically bankrupt that it can’t even be described as a “spectacular failure.” The plot is almost incomprehensible, the editing is chaotic, the effects work is poor, and protagonists never develop. Fifty minutes in, I turned to my friend and asked “who’s supposed to be the main character?”

Maybe someday, these books will get a proper miniseries treatment like “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” And that will allow us to forget that this aberration was ever made.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Wendy”

As it turns out, Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” was one of the very last movies I saw in theaters prior to the massive wave of coronavirus-induced shutdowns. But it’s taken me a while to write this because it’s taken me a while to sort out my feelings about the film, which hides some deceptively complex themes beneath its spare, artsy exterior.

With “Wendy,” director Zeitlin—previously responsible for the indie darling “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which followed a young girl’s journey to save her bayou community from an encroaching disaster—has delivered a (very) loose take on the Peter Pan story. It won’t be to everyone’s taste—at times it’s excruciatingly slow and thematically opaque—but I nevertheless found it to have a distinctly haunting power, and its eerie ideas have hovered around in my mind ever since I left the theater.

Set sometime during the mid-twentieth century, “Wendy” begins when the eponymous heroine (Devin France) and her twin brothers James and Douglas (Gage and Gavin Naquin, respectively) decide they won’t follow their mother’s path and work at the local diner. Late one night, the three encounter the mysterious boy Peter (Yashua Mack), who beckons them onto a passing train and down an river by rowboat. At the end of their odyssey is a mysterious island filled with children who never seem to age.

This island harbors many secrets. The wellspring of Peter and his followers’ youth, Wendy and her brothers soon learn, is “Mother”—a colossal glowing fish with some sort of connection to the island. Faith in Mother’s protection, Peter explains, is the root of the island’s flourishing. But as it turns out, the island also has a dark side: those who experience great tragedy—such as the loss of a friend—immediately lose their protection and begin to deteriorate at a rapid clip, passing from childhood into old age in a matter of hours.

(Spoilers to follow)

That lurking curse soon begins to wreak its havoc. During a routine expedition, Douglas is trapped inside a boat wreck and apparently drowned. A despondent James begins to age rapidly, starting with his hands; in a startlingly grisly moment, James hacks off his own arm with a sword in a futile attempt to stop the transformation. (As soon becomes clear, this is actually an out-of-left-field origin story for Captain James Hook.) James then takes up with the island’s population of other “fallen” children who’ve lost their faith and grown old, spearheading an attempt to repurpose an old fishing boat, slay Mother, and feed on her flesh in order to restore their lost youth.

Despite the best efforts of Peter and Wendy and the other children, James succeeds in harpooning Mother. But in the instant of the great fish’s death, the light of Mother’s flesh scatters across the ocean and is lost, leaving James without hope of healing. Then, in an outpouring of grief, Peter and Wendy join hands with the other children in a building song, a single musical note that gathers up the fragments of Mother’s diffused light and restores her to being. James, however, remains withered and old: the best he can do is play at swordfighting with Peter, an aged man desperately grasping at whatever childhood joys might still be available to him.

At some point thereafter, Wendy and Douglas—and many of the other children—return home and go on to live full lives. James is never heard from again.

There are obviously a lot of religious motifs in play here, but “Wendy” reflects a decidedly non-Christian theological vision. Whether consciously or not, the film is a sophisticated aesthetic expression of the classical pantheism (Ross Douthat would use the term “paganism”) that has increasingly begun to inform a good deal of religious discourse within an ostensibly “secular” world. There is no trace of secularity in Zeitlin’s movie: in its magical realism and romantic approach to nature, “Wendy” is decidedly a repudiation of any philosophical paradigm that would treat transcendent value or the sacred (however vaguely defined) as meaningless terms. Yet this “sacramentality,” so to speak, is divorced from any larger theoretical framework.

What’s absent here is what an old professor of mine might call a “High Telos” understanding of history—the notion that there is a narrative arc to the human experience, that things are going somewhere in a cosmic sense. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued, it is difficult to make sense of Christian thought without an expectant hope of the coming Kingdom of God, a moment where God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

In place of such an overarching structure, “Wendy” instead centers the cycles and rhythms of the natural order. Mother’s death and rebirth is not a resurrection in the Christian sense—an eschatological rupture opening the way forward to the world’s ontological healing—but merely an interval of natural return, rather like the myths of the gods and goddesses of an ancient age (Mithras, Osiris, and so on). And the film’s closing shot—Wendy’s grown children joining Peter on a train bound for the mysterious island, with a smiling adult Wendy watching them go—perfectly encapsulates that theme of repetition and circularity. Nothing has really changed, except the date on the calendar.

This has profound implications for the film’s most troubled character, James. Christian thought has long centered on the tension between nature and grace, and here grace is in short supply. The closing moments of “Wendy” do indeed depict a kind of eschatological vision—a restoration of balance following imbalance—but there is a grim edge to that vision. Here, to transgress against the natural order (trust in Mother) is to commit an unforgivable sin, one that curses the malefactor to remain forever damaged and afflicted. And this punishment is not reserved to James, the one who would hunt and devour Mother: all the other children who experienced sorrow and grew old—regardless of the circumstances—are similarly sentenced to permanent decrepitude. Mother’s island is, in short, a kind of heaven without forgiveness.

As interesting—and unusual—as this sort of story is, I don’t know that most readers of this review would enjoy “Wendy.” I’ve laid out the underlying themes much more starkly than Zeitlin does—the film’s languid pace and dream like imagery will put a lot of viewers to sleep. But if you were ever curious about what art might be produced by a fully post-Christian culture—one that refuses either to depict traditional theological themes or consciously subvert them—“Wendy” is a memorable tale indeed. 

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2020 in Fantasy

 
 
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