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ARTEMIS FOWL – Patrick Doyle

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After being in production since 2013, and then languishing in distribution hell for well over a year after it was completed, Artemis Fowl has finally staggered into the world as a straight-to-streaming product on Disney+ in June 2020, having had its theatrical release cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a fantasy-adventure film for children, based on the massively popular series of novels by Eoin Colfer, and tells the story of a 12-year old genius named Artemis Fowl, who is the heir to the vast fortune accumulated by his father, a criminal mastermind. However, when his father is kidnapped, young Artemis is tasked with rescuing him, and is thrust into an adventure involving ancient artifacts, mythical hidden cities, and creatures from Irish folklore – fairies and leprechauns and the like – some of whom are intent on apparently starting a war between them and humans. The film stars Colin Farrell, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and young Ferdia Shaw (the grandson of Jaws actor Robert Shaw) in the title role, and is directed by Kenneth Branagh.

The professional relationship between Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle is one of the most successful in contemporary cinema. Ever since they first worked together on Henry V, more than 30 years ago, these two men have brought out the best in each other, by way of such outstanding collaborations as Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hamlet, Cinderella, and Murder on the Orient Express. Perhaps the only misfires in their long and fruitful career have been the few occasions where they have attempted to go ‘contemporary’ – the score for the super hero movie Thor received a somewhat lukewarm appraisal, while Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was perhaps the most disappointing score of that entire franchise. Thankfully, Artemis Fowl goes some way to redressing that balance. Although it adopts many of the modernistic tendencies that influenced scores like Thor and Jack Ryan, as well as things like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and makes increased use of electronic percussion ideas, it also contains a great deal of lyricism and beauty. Some of the instrumental choices speak specifically to the Irishness of the film, and have commonalities in tone and texture with scores like the Scotland-set Brave and Into the West. Finally, once it gets going, some of the action music is really quite excellent, and often adopts a forceful nature that occasionally recalls the intensity of scores like Hamlet, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Frankenstein.

However, I also think I need to temper expectations slightly, because although I’m ticking off references to some of Doyle’s greatest-ever scores here, Artemis Fowl is nowhere near as good as any of them in sum total. There are flashes of classic Doyle throughout the score and, as I said, much of the emotional music is beautiful and much of the action music is thoroughly entertaining. On the other hand, some of the music does tend to come across as being a little anonymous, adopting an unexpectedly generic fantasy-action tone that doesn’t have as many of Doyle’s compositional trademarks as one would hope to hear. Artemis Fowl isn’t a score which screams Patrick Doyle, and I can’t help but wonder whether the extended post-production period, and the subsequent distribution delays, resulted in Doyle’s score being somewhat watered-down in order to meet the needs of nervous executives and restless test screen audiences who failed to connect with the movie as a whole.

What Artemis Fowl does well, however, it does very well indeed. The opening cue, “Father and Son,” introduces a theme for Artemis and his father, a gorgeous and lyrical Irish melody arranged for mainly solo violin and a prominent harp. It’s an old-fashioned, sentimental piece, a romantic celebration of Irish culture and heritage, longing and poignant. This overall sense of ‘Irishness’ continues through much of the rest of the score, and is especially fascinating when it comes to how Doyle uses uilleann pipes. When we think of uilleann pipes these days we usually think of James Horner and Braveheart, and how they were used to lead the melody and create an ancient, haunting atmosphere. What Doyle does with them here is very different, in that he almost uses them as part of his percussion section. Cues like “Talented Tunneller,” for example, blend pipes and other light Irish influences with contemporary electronic pulses and synth percussion, a highly unusual combination of styles which works very well as a way to illustrate the concept of fairies and leprechauns having their own modern technological society, hundreds of feet below the surface of the human one.

I love the subsequent cue, “Surfing,” which blends uilleann pipes, pennywhistles, and more prominent brass, with electronic percussion performing light action rhythms, and then adds a wholly new surprise via an ethereal new-age voice singing in what sounds like Gaelic. Later, “Time to Believe” adds an air of mystery to the proceedings, with soft strings, chimes, and the vaguest hints of pipes; the more determined and ostinato-driven second half leads into “Haven City,” which underscores the first appearance of the lost city of the leprechauns. Doyle’s music for the city is revelatory and magical, and is arranged for strings and chimes augmented by subtle electronics, choir, and pipes. At the 1:21 mark a new theme emerges which appears to relate to the Holly Short character, an officer in the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance Force (LEP-Recon – get it?); it’s an elegant motif for strings with a waltz-time feel. Holly’s boss “Commander Root,” which is Judi Dench’s character, gets her own little theme too, which features similar orchestrations but has a slightly more militaristic tone and a repetitive 4-note rhythmic motif.

Once the plot kicks off in earnest, the action begins, and it is here that Doyle starts to concentrate much more on action. Throughout the central part of the score Doyle frequently references his thematic and textural ideas – pipes for the Irish setting, the emotional strings of Artemis’s theme, and so on. There are also a couple of new ideas which begin to emerge, including a magical bubbling synth motif for the Aculos (the fairy artefact McGuffin that drives the plot), and some sinister tones which appear to relate to Opal Kobie, a Vietnamese pixie who acts as the film’s primary antagonist.

“You’re Not Going” begins softly and emotionally, anchored by a haunting solo violin, but quickly emerges into a more lyrical Irish-flavored action sequence which is heavy on pipes, fiddles, and bodhrán drums. “To the Surface” is a wonderfully vibrant piece with some superb Harry Potter-esque fantasy fanfares during its conclusion; the subsequent “Containment” is absolutely superb, a fast and ferocious sequence full of flashing strings, pulsating electronics, and roaring brass. “Battle Stations” offers a noteworthy expansion of Commander Root’s militaristic motif, passing her 4-note identity around different instruments and underpinning them with cello ostinatos, electric guitars, pipes, synth percussion, and heroic brass in the finale. “Fairy Fight” is another example of the score’s tremendous intense action, and is built around a superb, repetitive rolling string figure bolstered by more brass and electronics.

Later, “New Recruit” and “Troll Fight” feature yet more outstanding action, with the latter of these two featuring a dramatic rendering of Opal Kobie’s motif, which builds to a tremendously powerful ending. A brand new theme is introduced in “The Fatal Blow,” a lovely piece for sentimental strings and piano, which switches to oboes, and has an emotional sweep in the conclusion which is gorgeous. This theme appears to relate to the character of Domovoi Butler, the Fowl family’s trusted servant and bodyguard, whose lineages have been linked for generations, and who acts as Artemis’s guide between the human world and the leprechaun world. The subsequent “Collapse” is perhaps the best action cue in the entire score, a magnificent combination of throbbing string ostinatos, energetic brass writing, and a rhythmic core that picks up pace as it develops, almost like a countdown. The brass in the finale has echoes of Frankenstein, while the statement of Holly Short’s theme at 1:49 has the emotional kick of a shillelagh to the back of the noggin.

The score’s finale begins with “A Dear Friend,” which opens with a sweeping and emotional statement of Domovoi’s Theme, before segueing into a gorgeous statement of the Artemis Fowl Father & Son theme, replete with soaring strings, and Irish fiddles. The tone is warm and appealing, and the whole thing has some of the same vibes as “Harry in Winter” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The writing for cello and orchestra in the penultimate “Worth Fighting For” is beautiful, while the conclusive “That’s My Ride” has a sense of forceful destiny and impending adventure, as Artemis and his friends board a helicopter, and fly off on their next mission.

As much as I know about Patrick Doyle, his talent and his versatility, and despite me having heard and liked pretty much every film score he has written since 1989, it still comes as something of a shock to me whenever he writes something contemporary. In my mind he is a composer of lavish Shakespeare adaptations and ornate costume dramas, and so when he gets out his keyboards and samplers and uses them to give his music a defiant modern kick, there is a brief moment of cognitive dissonance before I realize what he is doing and settle in for the ride. Artemis Fowl is a score like that; it has a few of the little touches and flourishes we have associated with Doyle’s writing for decades, and it has all the multi-thematic intellectualism he always brings to his scores, but it is most certainly a contemporary piece, with all the connotations that description brings.

The main themes are lovely, especially the Father & Son theme and Domovoi’s Theme. The Irish influences are handled deftly, and a great deal of the action music is terrific. However, it is the electronic and synth elements that are likely to be make or break: Doyle traditionalists may consider them too intrusive and too un-Doyle like, while others who previously found his purely orchestral work too old fashioned may find that they are the things that make them finally connect with his work. Either way, Artemis Fowl a score definitely worth exploring, as it is much likely to be better-received and longer-remembered than the film itself.

Buy the Artemis Fowl soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Father and Son (3:44)
  • Talented Tunneller (2:45)
  • Surfing (1:37)
  • Therapy (1:43)
  • Time to Believe (2:26)
  • Haven City (1:58)
  • Commander Root (1:28)
  • You’re Not Going (1:36)
  • Do Not Engage (1:34)
  • To the Surface (2:24)
  • Containment (2:04)
  • Full Scale Recovery (1:41)
  • Battle Stations (3:39)
  • Fairy Fight (1:03)
  • Negotiation (1:07)
  • The Artist (1:08)
  • We Meet Again (1:38)
  • Beechwood Short (1:01)
  • The Aculos (2:09)
  • New Recruit (1:54)
  • Troll Fight (2:21)
  • The Fatal Blow (2:08)
  • Collapse (2:29)
  • Fairy Dust (1:45)
  • Bring Him Back (2:12)
  • A Dear Friend (2:58)
  • Worth Fighting For (2:36)
  • That’s My Ride (2:55)

Running Time: 58 minutes 03 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2020)

Music composed by Patrick Doyle. Conducted by James Shearman. Orchestrations by James Shearman. Recorded and mixed by Nick Taylor. Edited by Peter Clarke and Richard Armstrong. Album produced by Patrick Doyle.

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