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“Gnomeo and Juliet” is a Star-Crossed Mash-Up of Shakespeare and “Toy Story”

"Gnomeo and Juliet" is a Star-Crossed Mash-Up of Shakespeare and "Toy Story"

This review of “Gnomeo and Juliet” by Daniel Walber was originally posted February 11th. The animated film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

What’s in a Gnome?

Romeo and Juliet interpreted by diminutive terracotta creatures in pointy hats. Is anything sacred? Is “Gnomeo and Juliet” the last straw in a seemingly endless series of objectionable adaptations of Shakespeare, besmirching the dignity of the Bard?

No, and that’s just silly. The film deals with the looming influence of Mr. Shakespeare right at the start, with a rendition of the original play’s famous prologue. The earnest gnome even gets through a good five or six lines of this blithely adapted iambic pentameter before being booed off by a whimsical chorus of his miniature brethren, a welcome homage to the Bard but also a clear declaration that this isn’t exactly Laurence Olivier. Nor should it be, and I think one would be hard-pressed to find a film critic taking issue with “Gnomeo and Juliet” simply because it’s built on Shakespeare. And before discussing where critiques of the movie are gathering, it’s appropriate to devote some time to the best points of the picture.

Our two houses, alike in dignity, are also quite complementary, the red and blue sides of a duplex house. Taking this colorful distinction that drives the conflict of the film and running with it, the animators create a wonderfully rich world of vibrant tones. Everything from the pointy hats to the lawnmowers and water fixtures is boldly and richly illustrated, quickly welcoming the audience into a world so vividly inspired by its red and blue rivals. The only noticeable problem is the 3D, which while not distracting, simply seems unnecessary. There aren’t really any visually exciting sequences that require that extra depth, and “Gnomeo” seems to be yet another film produced in 3D just to grab some more dough at the box office. That may be a redundant point, as that particular method seems to have simply become the default for children’s animation, but “Gnomeo” is a particularly good example of why those glasses shouldn’t always be necessary.

However, much of the negative response to the movie is not around the 3D but rather the wide variety of cultural references and connections present in the script. And that’s entirely reasonable, at least in part. “Gnomeo” falls into the same unfortunate mistake of many a recent animated picture (I’m looking at you, Dreamworks), and spends much too much time making pop culture references that aren’t even particularly funny. No one wants to sit watching animated garden objects singing last year’s Grammy nominees for an hour and a half. Yet at the same time it follows the “Toy Story 3” example of quoting not from current music and movie touchstones but rather from entire film genres, creating an amusing and not wholly uninteresting pastiche.

How does a film make sure that its references stay on the side of homage and don’t fall into unfunny kitsch and shameless joke-grabbing? With a movie like “Gnomeo” it’s even more difficult, because the whole thing is essentially a reference, and the mistakes stand out even more. The owner of the blue garden, clearly a middle-aged woman, does not need to be singing “Don’t Cha” of Pussycat Dolls fame. That just embarrasses your audience, and cheapens the quality of your humor. The occasional unnecessarily ribald joke also works its way in; the humor would hold up without a squirrel “dropping his nuts” line.

Yet on the Shakespeare front, the movie does a pretty good job balancing excellent comedy and the dignity of a solid reference. There are even moments in which the writers slip in direct paraphrase of the original Shakespearean language, and it tends to land right on target. The change in ending (spoiler alert: the kids’ movie about Romeo and Juliet doesn’t end in double-suicide) is handled particularly well, with a charming little cameo by the Bard himself, voiced by Patrick Stewart. An evocative but not trite balcony scene, a delightfully wicked Tybalt (Jason Statham) and an appropriately hilarious nurse (Ashley Jensen) add to the warm feeling you get watching an adaptation that approaches its source material with whimsical love rather than either excessive devotion or biting irony.

While on the subject of Statham and Jensen, it is also worth pointing out the voice acting in “Gnomeo and Juliet” as an overall plus. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt do a decent job as the star-crossed lovers, but the talent really comes through in the supporting cast. Michael Caine and Maggie Smith shine as Lord Redbrick and Lady Bluebury, and there are welcome brief moments of joy provided by Dolly Parton, Ozzy Osbourne, and Hulk Hogan as the voiceover in a hilarious ad for the Terrafirminator lawn mower.

That Terrafirminator, incidentally, is another upside of the quoting and referencing going on in this movie. While blatant pop culture jokes written for a cheap laugh fall flat, a clever genre parody can work wonders. This ridiculous commercial spoof, a thousand pound lawn mower that edges, mows and brings about fiery destruction is a more than welcome diversion, as is the ’70s TV-style psychedelic musical number of pink hearts and the love between Juliet and her Gnomeo.

Which brings me, finally, to Elton. The use of the flamboyant rocker’s music works well throughout the film, at least most of the time. There are of course moments at which an arranged quotation from John’s songs just doesn’t really work with the mood, but for the most part both the soundtrack and the solidly arranged score written by John Newton Howard and Chris Bacon only add to the charming nature of the movie’s best moments.

The one conceivable problem is that if you add up the Shakespeare, the Elton John soundtrack, the pop culture references and the genre quotations, it can seem as if the entire film is just a re-arrangement of other people’s ideas. When a joke falls flat, or a reference seems far too obvious, this problem rises to the foreground, and can make the entire film seem unnecessary. But for the most part, “Gnomeo and Juliet” stays just a bit above that thin line between inspired remake and unfortunate caricature, which is both a relief and a delight.

“Gnomeo and Juliet” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended If You Like: “Toy Story”; “She’s the Man”; Travelocity commercials

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