'Artemis Fowl' Brings the Heist Movie to the Children's Fantasy Genre [Set Visit Report]

The prevailing magic of children’s fantasy stories is seeing our intrepid heroes come of age in the most fantastical of situations. They enter this strange world timid, unsure, and insecure, and emerge from it a changed, emboldened hero. But Eoin Colfer‘s Artemis Fowl gave us a different kind of hero. In fact, the titular Artemis Fowl was no hero at all.

What if the protagonist of this children’s fantasy series was actually its villain, Artemis Fowl posits. What if he were cruel and calculating, with no remorse over kidnapping a fairy in order to ransom her for one ton of gold? It was a novel concept, and one that children fantasy readers flocked to when the first Artemis Fowl book was published in 2001 — here was a cool, punk alternative to that nerd Harry Potter. Artemis Fowl is a genius-level hacker and a master criminal who scoffs at children’s activities and only wears Italian suits, all by the age of 12. But the one childish notion that he hangs onto is an impossible belief in fairies.

Kenneth Branagh‘s feature film adaptation of Artemis Fowl does away with all of that. The upcoming Disney+ release is an “origin story” for Artemis Fowl, who starts off the story as a normal 12-year-old, albeit one that is maybe a little asocial. But after his father Artemis Senior’s mysterious disappearance, Artemis discovers a family secret that kicks off a string of otherworldly events and sets him on the path to becoming a master criminal.

“[Artemis] may be, if not sympathetic, recognizable,” Branagh told a group of reporters on the London set of Artemis Fowl. “A little bit more one of us.”

Turning Artemis Fowl Into a Superhero Origin Story

At the start of the story, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a normal boy, albeit one who lives in a “weird home” that has a lighthouse in the garden and a glass dome attached precariously to the roof. He wears hoodies and goes to public school. But when his father (Colin Farrell) mysteriously disappears while sailing the South China Seas, Artemis discovers that his normal life was a façade. His father, Artemis Senior, was a master criminal who played a part in some of the biggest crimes of the last 10 years. But most importantly, his father and all the past generations of the Fowl family, had an obsession with fairies.

This kicks off the action of the film and leads Artemis down the path of following in his family’s footsteps while searching for clues of his father’s whereabouts, a journey that Branagh compares to Michael Corleone’s descent in The Godfather:

A story’s shape that I found interesting — I always look at the masters, the classics — is The Godfather. At the beginning of the first film, although they are part of a family that’s known to be in business, [Michael Corleone] is somebody who has been in the services, who’s not entirely certain about what dad does. And I think Artemis has [that same dilemma], but by the end of the picture he has to face up to: ‘Well, should I do some of this as well? Do I believe in it? Am I behind it?’ Here we’re in a world that offers up a different kind of fun and enjoyment, and I hope adventure and pace, as well. …”

But to his costume designers, Branagh described something more akin to a “superhero” origin. When Artemis changes from his t-shirts and hoodies, he dons a suit like the one worn by his butler, Domovoi Butler (Nonsi Anozie), the latest in the long line of manservants who have loyally served the Fowl family. But to Artemis, Butler is more like a hero he idolizes, which is why he puts on the sleek three-piece suit, which costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ compares to “a suit of armor to him or his superhero outfit.” Branagh told Differ that the suit and tie would be Artemis’ ultimate superhero costume, Differ said:

And he wanted it to have a superhero feel about it. He always said to me, “This is their superhero suit. So you have to make it so that it just looks like it’s perfect.”

Pulling Off an Elaborate Heist

A superhero origin story? An edgy modern spin on the fairy tale? Just how many genres could Artemis Fowl fit in it? At least one more. The second half of Artemis Fowl is devoted almost entirely to a heist, as the fairy police force launches a mission to rescue Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), an elf officer who has been kidnapped by Artemis Fowl. Duped by Artemis and unable to charge into Fowl Manor in the traditional way (non-lethal guns a-blazing), the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance (AKA LEPRecon — get it?) enlists the help of a criminal who can bypass both magical and human rules. That criminal is Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a dwarf thief doing time in the fairy prison Howler’s Peak, who is promised a lighter sentence if he breaks into Fowl Manor to rescue Holly.

That means the majority of the film will take place in Fowl Manor, which was the biggest set piece of Artemis Fowl — mostly because production designer Jim Clay had to build a real, working house:

‘The style of shooting which [Branagh] has developed over the last 10 years…is very much a fluid style, continuous shots moving from exterior to interior and roaming all around whatever location we’re in. So that meant the house had to be designed in a particular way. That led us to the decision to combine the interior with the exterior. So in effect, we were building a real house. I’ve been asked to make this house last for a number of years. So we’re building a real house in the open. We have to keep the rain out. We’ve had to insulate it, we’ve had to heat it. And we’ve had to accommodate all the shooting.”

Having a real, working house was “a particular advantage to, obviously, a young cast who have not done a lot of this before,” Clay added. It was also an advantage for the last act of the film, which involves a troll going on a rampage through Fowl Manor. “When a 50-foot troll enters your house there’s going to be a bit of collateral damage. We were going to build it fairly obviously,” Clay said.

Fowl Manor as Branagh envisioned it would have to be built as well — they couldn’t find the “beautiful, crazy, bonkers house” that Branagh describes just sitting around in Ireland. Though Colfer’s version of Fowl Manor is austere and Gothic, Branagh’s is more like something Tim Burton dreamed up in a sugar-induced haze, a quirky, haphazardly built house spilling over with gadgets and gizmos accumulated by Fowls over the centuries. The Fowls all been fascinated with the “world of magic and the cosmos and astronomy,” Branagh described.

“They are a family of collectors of things,” added set decorator Celia Bobak, who made the interior as eccentric as the exterior — and that’s a feat, considering the Fowl Manor has a lighthouse in the garden, a glass dome, and a few mismatched towers. A “traditional castle-like house or the traditional Irish country house, we felt we had seen and possibly it didn’t give us enough scope for coming episodes and for the sort of scenes Ken wants to play in the house. So we just really expanded that and looked at more eccentric styles of architecture,” Clay described. It’s a quirky house for a strange boy living in the mystical lands of Ireland, but that’s exactly what drew Branagh to Artemis Fowl.

“I loved [Artemis’] Irishness… and the sort of — the collision sometimes, but the proximity of worlds,” Branagh said. “And I like that creatively, it always feels like it’s a good, risky place to be.”

Artemis Fowl is set to be released on Disney+ on June 12, 2020.

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