Gnomeo & Juliet (2011): United States – directed by Kelly Asbury
Rated G by the MPAA – contains rude humor, Borat-style swimsuit, violence, some innuendo
Gnomeo and Juliet. The title says it all. Really, what title has ever been more descriptive of a film, other than perhaps The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? This is the tale of Romeo and Juliet, as told by garden gnomes in England. Naturally, a children’s film such as this cannot end as tragically as the Bard intended, a fact the Bard himself addresses in one of the film’s most humorous moments. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is as not-particularly-good as the title suggests.
There are humans in the film, but they are never fully revealed. There is a Capulet and a Montague, and their houses are attached. But they are also painted strikingly different colors. There is red on one side, and blue on the other, even down to the shared chimney stack. The neighbors hate each other, almost as much as their respective garden gnomes hate each other.
Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith) is in charge of the Blues, as one might expect from her name. Her nemesis across the fence is Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine). Both of their spouses have perished, a not-infrequent occurrence for creatures of such unyielding sturdiness. A simple fall will smash all but the most agile of the gnomes. Fortunately, Juliet (Emily Blunt) is able bodied and nimble, though her father, Redbrick, wishes to keep her safe in the castle. Lady Blueberry’s son, Gnomeo (James McAvoy), is also young and headstrong, and engages in violent lawnmower races with Tybalt (Jason Statham) of the reds.
One fateful evening Juliet escapes her confines in search of the cupid orchid, a flower so grand it will make the blue garden pale in comparison. Dressed in black she finds her way across the garden with the help of her nurse maid, a frog named Nanette (Ashley Jensen, from Ricky Gervais’ “Extras”). Meanwhile, Gnomeo spots an attractive figure gallivanting along the walls in the moonlight, and follows. Thus is the meet-cute between Gnomeo and Juliet. They discover they love one another, though they are appalled to learn they are of the wrong clan. Nanette is enamored by their tragic, doomed love.
What follows is several series of shenanigans, involving a pink plastic flamingo named Featherstone (Jim Cummings), a courter for Juliet named Paris (another of Gervais’ friends, Stephen Merchant, who is able to elevate even dreck like Tooth Fairy [review here]), a fawn voiced by Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Gnome voiced by Dolly Parton, and a fearsome weapon of grass destruction called the Terrafirminator (voiced over by Hulk Hogan).
The Terrafirminator steals the show, as a mock advertisement is shown on a computer, highlighting this mammoth 500 horsepower destroyer of lawns. Naturally, it shall be used in a totally destructive ending whereby a part of London is destroyed. The other best scene involves a discussion between Gnomeo and a statue of Shakespeare (voiced by Patrick Stewart). The bard is reminded, by Gnomeo’s tale of tragedy, of another story, and relates the ending as he knows it. Gnomeo is not particularly impressed.
The ending, while expected, softens some of the drudgery surrounding the rest of the film. Aside from the aforementioned amusing moments, there are occasional visual treats and in-jokes to Shakespeare’s other works (an R&G – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – moving company, for instance). Some of these are mildly amusing, and some are rather questionable, such as a gnome in a Borat-style bathing suit. The film is aimed squarely at young kids, but some of the jokes and destructive themes are far beyond most 4-6 year olds. The rest of the film aims to mimic Shrek’s success, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering Kelly Asbury is the director here. Along with Shrek 2 to his directing credits, he can claim credit as one of the writers for Beauty and the Beast [review here]. With such a rich background, it’s a shame Gnomeo and Juliet didn’t turn out substantially better, especially considering the rich voice cast.
Some parts are painful and questionable, such as a scene featuring Nanette on a bed of roses, a la American Beauty. Some of the soundtrack is ill-fitting, though most of it is upbeat and pop-y, with the bulk of the songs courtesy of Elton John (who also received an executive producer credit). The animation is interesting; not quite detailed enough to be considered amazing, yet still fairly impressive. The gnomes are flat and texture-less, for the most part, giving little opportunity for the animators to display their skills.
Gnomeo and Juliet is a mixed bag. It’s a familiar story told by gnomes, a questionable choice at best. Many of the jokes work, and many fall flat. Some are questionably rude or offensive for a film aimed at such a young crowd, but there are enough adult jokes that many parents won’t mind sitting through the film. I enjoyed parts of it, I guffawed at parts, and was annoyed, to a large extent, that the film wasn’t better, that the pacing wasn’t more assured, that it hadn’t been tightened up a little more. With some additional care, it might have been only a notch below Shrek, instead of ranking alongside much of the middling animation of the past few years.