I’m not one for hyperbole, but sometimes a movie warrants some. So, here goes: Gnomeo & Juliet is the greatest film ever made about living, breathing garden gnomes. Throw in the whole Shakespeare element, including references to a Rosencratz and Guildenstern moving company and an animated statue of the Bard himself, and you can be sure that there will never again be another picture quite like it.
That being noted, there’s also this: Gnomeo & Juliet is a 3-D animated movie about star-crossed garden gnome lovers. In terms of scintillating pitches, the idea comes up pretty mild, reeking of obscure, dated desperation. Does anyone under the 70 even own a garden gnome?
Throw in the dreaded, unnecessary extra dimension and the seven credited screenwriters (as vivid a warning sign as ever) and you’ve got what appears to be a recipe for family film tedium at best and sheer, mundane torture at worst.
And yet, a funny thing happens somewhere right around the first, moonlit meeting of lovers Gnomeo (James McAvoy), one of the “Blues,” and Juliet (Emily Blunt), a “Red.” Skepticism fades and the film starts to grow on you. It then proceeds to win you over with its sly British charm, abundance of likable supporting lawn ornaments and dash of genuine adventure, all neatly wrapped into a brisk 80 minutes.
Essentially a low-key, limited version of Toy Story, the film replaces the classic trilogy’s love story – that between a boy and his toys – with simpler quasi-Shakespearean territory. The gnome families spring to life and resume their senseless conflict whenever humans depart, the love between a Blue and a Red is deemed doomed, there are embittered, overprotective parents and a robust supporting assemblage of gnomes, mushrooms, a frog and flamingo, among other lawn fixtures, most of which are given some sort of cute quirk.
The movie is mostly a straightforward, family-friendly affair, but there are some welcome offbeat touches to keep things interesting. First, the stiffly animated gnomes retain their odd, haunted wooden quality, seeming to be less lifelike apparitions than puppets behaving unnaturally.
Additionally, executive producer/soundtrack honcho Elton John makes his presence felt: his songs, or kid-friendly parodies of them, are heard throughout the film. A gnome even adopts a pair of sparkly Elton glasses. The effect is a strange one, adding an unwieldy, self-referential level to the already out-there concept of garden gnomes doing Shakespeare. Yet, somehow it works.
Finally, the picture moves at a quick pace with a healthily spirited sensibility and steadfast desire to explore this micro garden universe. The climax is amusingly dark and destructive, especially for a film about, yes, gnomes.
Best of all, the picture offers a simple Shakespearean primer, caked in a cut-and-dry narrative, interspersed among scenes of soaring lawn mowers, gnomic stealth operations and an innocent, heartfelt love story. It’s not a great stretch to think that Gnomeo and Juliet could inspire its youngest viewers to learn more about that talking statue named William.
To sum up, against the odds, my better judgment and all that’s right and logical in the world, I’m kinda, sorta, actually recommending a 3-D animated film about Shakespeare-enacting, Elton John-loving garden gnomes. You certainly won’t see another one.
The Upside: The movie is pretty clever and it offers a fun time if you can accept the super-high concept premise.
The Downside: It’s hard to take gnomes too seriously.
On the Side: The voice cast is pretty remarkable – in addition to McAvoy and Blunt, there’s Patrick Stewart, Ozzy Osbourne, Stephen Merchant, Michael Caine, Jason Staham, Julie Walters, Hulk Hogan and Ashley Jensen.