By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art thou, Gnomeo?
Whoa — Shakespeare for kids? Set in the world of garden ornaments, no less. Hmmm, ridiculous — right?
No, it turns out. Because Gnomeo & Juliet, while no world beater, is a clever and colorful kidflick. Hey, if West Side Story and Titanic can riff on Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy, why can’t a toon?
Despite its derivative nature, starting with a Shakespeare play and borrowing wrinkles and devices from other recent animated films, Gnomeo & Juliet offers originality in its particular and unique charm.
As off-the-wall as this loopy, animated, semi-musical, 3-D take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in the world of ceramic garden ornaments sounds, it plays as a respectfully inventive lark.
As in the play, we have feuding neighbors — Miss Montague and Mr. Capulet. They live — where else? — next door to each other on Verona Street in suburban Stratford-on-Avon, have adjoining backyards, and just love garden gnomes.
The film’s central conceit is that the gnomes come to life — a page from the Toy Story playbook — when there are no humans around and freeze in place whenever a human happens by, which happens to be (ain’t dramatic license grand?) not that often.
In this version, it is the lawn-furniture collections of the two households who feud just because the humans do, and who disapprove of a star-crossed romantic relationship that has cropped up between (gasp!) a red garden gnome and a blue garden gnome.
Gnomeo (voice courtesy of James McAvoy) is blue and Juliet (Emily Blunt) is red. And because their families are warring over whatever, they are supposed to stay on their respective sides of the garden fence that separates them and ignore the overpowering feelings that they have for each other.
McAvoy and Blunt are skilled charmers. And they’re backed up by a supporting voice cast that includes the likes of Jason Staham (Tybalt), Michael Caine (Lord Redbrick), Maggie Smith (Lady Bluebury), Patrick Stewart (William Shakespeare), Julie Walters (Miss Montague), Dolly Parton (Dolly), Jim Cummings (Featherstone), Ozzy Osbourne (Bambi), and Hulk Hogan (Terrafirmenator)
Gnomeo & Juliet is, therefore, a pleasure to hear.
Elton John, also the executive producer, wrote the songs (mostly altered classics) with lyricist Bernie Taupin, including a new song (“Hello, Hello”) that John sings along with Lady Gaga, to go along with the score by James Newton Howard and Chris Bacon.
The director, Kelly Asbury, who co-directed two very fine animated features (Shrek 2; Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), reaches out for his youthful target audience by including plenty of punchy slapstick, many groan-worthy puns, a few lawnmower races, and several other playful narrative wrinkles. Yet there are enough Shakespearean in-jokes to keep grownups from feeling disenfranchised.
But the omnibus approach throughout, which robs the film of a certain narrative momentum in the middle going, seems a result of the committee-written screenplay, concocted by ten screenwriters who include the director and Billy the Bard.
As for any worried parents of little ones, they should know two things: that it’s G-rated (so, no, there’s no gnomeosexuality), and that a rejiggered ending replaces Shakespeare’s tragic with child-friendly magic.
So we’ll plant 2½ stars out of 4 for this eccentric, tongue-in-cheek, kid-targeted, computer-animated, unnecessarily-3D’d romp.
Gnomeo & Juliet may not rock your children’s world, but it’s sufficiently delightful that they just might feel that parting is such sweet sorrow.