Gnomeo & Juliet

What It Is

“The story you are about to see has been told many times before,” announces a garden gnome. This version will be different, he insists, just before he begins to read the “long, boring, prologue” concerning star-cross’d lovers. If his prodigiously pointy hat and short stature didn’t clue you in before, his swift and slapsticky removal from the stage makes clear that Gnomeo & Juliet is not your regular Shakespearean tragedy.

For one thing, it features a raft of Elton John songs (“Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting”), refitted for antic montages and emotional consequences (as well as a new duet for John and Lady Gaga). It also centers the action in two backyards inhabited by gnomes and other lawn ornaments (who must freeze whenever a human comes near, like the dolls in Toy Story), their hostility broadly drawn. The Capulets, including Juliet (Emily Blunt) and her father Redbrick (Michael Caine), wear red, and the Montagues, like Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and his mom Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), prefer blue. Their feud goes back for ages, but comes roaring to the surface when the couple-to-be meets cute one night, when Juliet sneaks into his yard to steal an orchid and walks off with Gnomeo’s heart instead. Though they’re horrified to discover their opposed affiliations, they’re also inclined to rebel against their stuffy parents — Juliet especially, as Redbrick wants to keep her confined to her (literal) pedestal.

The tale proceeds much as you expect, save for some conspicuous references to recent pop culture (Apple computers, Brokeback Mountain, Elton John’s fabulous sequins) and a meta-moment when Gnomeo rejects the familiar tragic ending (promoted here by a rather smug Shakespeare monument voiced by Patrick Stewart). The supporting cast is also rejiggered: Juliet’s nurse is an amorous frog named Nanette (Ashley Jensen), while her bully of a cousin Tybalt (Jason Statham) goes gunning for Gnomeo. Over on the other side, Gnomeo’s own dimwitted cousin, Benny (Matt Lucas), stumbles into a side plot involving a monster lawnmower called the Terrafirminator (introduced in an ad narrated by Hulk Hogan), which generates a denouement much like the apocalyptic extermination in Over the Hedge. As noisy and fractious as the action becomes, the movie returns to its romance plot in time for everyone to enjoy hugs and dancing.

Why It’s Fun

As tends to happen in DreamWorks animated films, pace Shrek, the jokes are focused through verbal and sight gags. A stone fish sinks rather than swims when set free, a girl gnome is warned that her weight will put off her beau. As well, the gnomes’ addresses indicate an ongoing contest between the human owners (“2B Verona Lane” and then next door, another “2B,” crossed out), one observer notes, “A weed by any other name is still a weed,” a truck full of teapots is labeled “Tempest,” and so on.

The many instances of gnomes in action are only occasionally lively, never surprising.

And the animation, by Canada’s Starz Animation (who made 9), alternates between great attention to detail (a scratch in Gnomeo’s eyebrow remains consistent, a sign of his weathering) and middling 3D (including the infamous dimness).

Who’s Going To Love It

While I wouldn’t say for sure there’s a ready audience for gnome romance (save for those who may be waiting for Travelocity’s fixed-face pitchman to make his feature film debut), the basic Romeo and Juliet storyline is certainly time-tested. Still, the use of it — again — is a gamble. Purists will disdain the complete upending of the finale, and those with less investment won’t get or care about the references to the original.

There are youthful pleasures to be taken in the colorful animated creatures, though it does recycle the Shreks more than a little (director Kelly Asbury helmed Shrek 2). The crowd of stone bunnies who follow Lady Bluebury around are cute, and Gnomeo’s pet-buddy, a porcelain toadstool named Shroom, riffs on wordless sidekicks like R2D2. Still, repetition is built into the premise, and so the lack of more prominent innovation — really new ideas and characters — is a bit glaring.

The Elton John songbook might also have been a draw, but many of the tunes are stripped down to serve as propulsive action-sequence background sound: they’re more gestures toward Elton John than the real thing (that said, his animated, glitter-glasses self shows up to play the piano and sing in a fantasy sequence).

What To Be Aware Of

Some jokes are a little tired: to put down the insistently arrogant Tybalt, someone suggests he looks “like a pansy.” It’s garden humor, yes, but also, aren’t we past “That’s so gay” aspersions? Other jokes are just predictable (the allusions to “big and pointy” hats come and go without much notice). And still others are unfathomable: one gnome, apparently designed to “sunbathe,” wears a mankini that leaves little to the imagination regarding his portly stone figure.

The action scenes can be a little daunting: racing on lawnmowers, Gnomeo and Tybalt make a lot of noise, especially during crashes. A couple of scenes involving weapons seem a mite aggressive for a G-rated film, but then again, not so different from the punishment once delivered to Wile E. Coyote on a weekly basis. The Terrafirminator is monstrous in every way — looming and red-eyed, fire-breathing and programmed to destroy.

The most tedious figure here is a very nice plastic flamingo named Featherstone (Jim Cummings). A lonely, eager, and sometimes insightful abettor of the romance, his Cuban accent teeters into stereotype.

A joke concerning a line from Macbeth includes the word “damn,” referring to a dog named Spot.

See-It-Again Points

6 out of 10

Film Information

Gnomeo & Juliet
Director: Kelly Asbury
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Stephen Merchant, Ashley Jensen
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2011
Rated: G
US Premiere: February 11, 2011
UK Premiere: February 11, 2011
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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