Gnomeo and Juliet
Directed by Kelly Asbury
Screenplay by Kelly Asbury, Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Andy Riley and Steve Hamilton Shaw
James McAvoy as Gnomeo (voice)
Emily Blunt as Juliet (voice)
Running time: 84 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated G
A completely ridiculous concept proves
clever and far wittier than expected.
The TV spots and trailers for Rocket Pictures’ Gnomeo and Juliet probably made you wonder, “Really? Romeo and Juliet with garden gnomes? How silly.” Actually the celebrity-packed kids’ flick is a gratifying, witty retelling of that age-old tale of star-cross’d lovers. It’s not destined for the hall of fame, but the movie, penned by a cadre of writers and based upon Will Shakespeare’s classic, is a sweetly tongue-in-cheek fable.
Ever since the first Toy Story movie, we’ve lived in hopes that our inanimate objects come to adorable life the moment we turn our backs. The idea of garden gnomes committing capers under our very noses is not unheard of; it was enchanting to witness the red-capped gnome pose in front of pyramids in Amélie, and Travelocity’s version is cute too. Assuming you aren’t horribly spooked by garden gnomes (I won’t judge), you’ll find Gnomeo and Juliet takes a classic tragedy and puts a modern (ceramic) face on it.
In the opening scene, an eyeless gnome totters to center stage before red velvet curtains. Reading from a parchment scroll, he warns the audience, “There’s a long, boring prologue, and I’m going to read it to you.” He gets no farther than “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes” before he’s yanked offstage. Commence loving jabs at that Elizabethan-collared gent. On fair Verona Drive where we lay our scene, two neighbors are in the midst of a years-long, bitterly forged feud—they volley British insults (the English mask them so well in beautiful language) over garden fences. Meanwhile, in the polished and pruned suburban backyards, the Red and Blue gnomes carry on their own quarrel. Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) quite literally places his daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt) on a pedestal to keep her safe, but spunky Juliet goes in search of the perfect orchid to top off their garden. Atop the peaked greenhouse she encounters Gnomeo (James McAvoy), a duly feisty young gnome whose adventuresome nature lands him in trouble. The two begin a clandestine romance and things rapidly spin out of control.
As in the play and all its filmic adaptations, the Reds (Capulets) come off as a bunch of thugs to whom sweet Juliet is chained by blood. The Blues (Montagues) are the true heroes of the tale. After Tybalt (Jason Statham) smashes the head of Benny (representing Mercutio), Gnomeo has no choice but to attack. Cue angst. Luckily the writers managed to cleverly alter even the film’s mournful moments, including the “a rose by any other name” monologue. While the play is subversively sexualized, the gnomes pride themselves on sturdy bellies and big, pointy hats. They clink when they kiss. It’s an entertaining, decidedly unsexy take on something so ostensibly serious.
Gnomeo and Juliet references Shakespeare punnily throughout: companies called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Movers” and “Tempest Teapots” flit in and out. There’s a shot directly referencing Mena Suvari’s “naked with roses” sequence in American Beauty. The movie twists enough of the play’s overwrought dramatics to keep things interesting. Nanette, a fountain frog representing the Nurse, falls madly in love with Paris, a geeky and bespectacled gnome. Lady Bluebury (Julie Walters) and Lord Redbrick admit their feud is ridiculous. Instead of swords, the gnomes battle on lawnmowers, the mother of all being the Terrorfirminator. Patrick Stewart voices Shakespeare himself, in the form of the playwright’s gravestone bust. Hearing Stewart’s Shakespeare smarmily mutter, “Told you so” is decidedly satisfying.
During the exposition the dialogue is not snappy; editing feels forced. After the chaste young lovers meet Featherstone the pink plastic flamingo (Jim Cummings), the pacing recovers. The animation, while not up to Pixar standards, is passable, the colors brilliant. As with other 3D films, you’ll quit noticing the supposed third dimension after a few minutes—though shots of dandelion fluff floating through the air are reminiscent of Avatar’s best 3D scenes.
Elton John’s music for kids’ movies is oft overrated since it hit its soaring peak in The Lion King. Fortunately, though the original composition in Gnomeo and Juliet isn’t mind-blowing, John inserts cheeky snippets of “Bennie and the Jets” and “Your Song,” as well as pays homage to his glam-rock piano man act. Thanks to cameos from Hulk Hogan, Dolly Parton, and proverbial orally challenged aging rocker Ozzy Osbourne, even the bit voices are top-notch.
Gnomeo and Juliet seems like a terrible idea. Due to smart writing and great character actors, the end result is more fun than expected. It may not hit quite the niche audience it was after—the subject matter is actually directed toward adults more than kids—but it deserves a round of applause for masterfully whipping cleverness out of its Elizabethan-era hat. The last few years have brought us a number of great kids’ movies. Gnomeo and Juliet certainly won’t top it, but at the very least it’s a cute movie to see with your kids.