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‘Sherlock Gnomes’ Review: A Painful Predicament is Solved With Clear Direction

The sequel lacks a lot of what works in ‘Gnomeo & Juliet’ but it’s handled well enough for the fans that matter.
By  · Published on March 25th, 2018

The sequel lacks a lot of what works in ‘Gnomeo & Juliet’ but it’s handled well enough for the fans that matter.

After Romeo and Juliet, the most famous fictional British duo in the public domain are Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. So, naturally, the sequel to the 2011 animated feature Gnomeo & Juliet had to be Sherlock Gnomes, especially since the title character could so easily fit the pun. Just as the original introduced clay garden gnome versions of Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, the follow-up presents miniature statues of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective pair. If only they were welcome additions to the joyful world of sentient lawn ornaments.

Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) is the self-obsessed, self-professed protector of London’s garden gnomes. He’s a pompous jerk, and Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) starts out seeming so resentful of his partner that neither is very fun to watch, whether you’re a parent familiar with the characters or a child encountering them for the first time (even my three-year-old daughter said, early on, “I don’t like those guys”). Fortunately, the colorful characters from the first movie are back to provide familiar entertainment value.

The setting for the sequel has changed to the big city, to which the bickering human neighbors Mr. Capulet and Miss Montague have moved after apparently getting together themselves. But in the midst of the also-united blue and red gnome clans trying to settle in, they’re mysteriously kidnapped, similar to other yardfulls of gnomes disappearing in the area. Fortunately, Gnomeo and Juliet (James McAvoy and Emily Blunt) are out at the time, going through a romantic spat, and so wind up teaming up with Sherlock and Watson to solve the case.

The clever punniness of the previous movie isn’t matched well with Sherlock Gnomes, maybe because there aren’t as many silly and witty things to do with the property. Maybe also because the writing just isn’t as stacked with input — for once, it appears having fewer credited screenwriters on board is a negative, as only two of the credited Gnomeo & Juliet scribes (Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, who’d gone on to write for Veep) returned, joined by the less-promising Ben Zazove (Tooth Fairy 2). In mashing up of Doyle and Shakespeare (and, again, Elton John) pastiche, the creative team forgot to blend in enough of the latter, which heavily amused us older viewers in the previous movie. As a result, the returning characters just turn into common littles. This could have easily been Sherlock meets Trolls or The Smurfs.

When the references to Holmes lore do happen, they’re either too obvious and slight (a random dog happens to be owned by “the Baskervilles”) or too obscure and inside-jokey (the Lucky Cat shop from the BBC’s Sherlock is redone as “Curly Fu’s” in tribute to China’s nickname for Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal). Meanwhile, the plot-heavy storyline that comes with the mystery genre keeps a lot of the character moments and other incidental charms we got with Gnomeo & Juliet to a minimum. The expansively set story also opens up room for additional types of characters, from Maneki-neko figurines to gargoyles to a villainous company mascot ornament. Also more dolls, further reminding us how much this franchise owes (as most animated films do these days) to Toy Story.

One of those dolls is voiced by Mary J. Blige, and the too-briefly-met character (who inexplicably turns from African-American to white during her big scene) performs a musical number about how much she doesn’t like Sherlock, who happens to be her ex. Aside from it being an oddly negative lyrical focus for an original tune for a kids’ movie, the song is nevertheless fitting given that nobody else on screen or in the audience likes the detective either. Depp’s voice doesn’t help with that, of course, but as written Sherlock is just boring as well as unpleasant. It’s for the character’s arc as it serves the movie’s theme, which is that people often take their partners for granted, whether in work or love. But so does the relationship drama of Gnomeo and Juliet and they, especially Juliet, remain an appealing and compelling set.

Negative as all that sounds, Sherlock Gnomes is hardly a bad movie. The sequel fails to meet the comedy and close-knit comforts of Gnomeo & Juliet, but at least it’s directed clearly and competently enough by John Stevenson (Kung Fu Panda). It’s not easy to deliver a surprise- and suspense-filled mystery that, while fairly predictable for the adults, keeps the young viewers intrigued, and the pacing of the deductions — much of it done through a changing up of animation style to depict what’s going on in Sherlock’s head — along with the accompanying action works better than a lot of other simpler and more convoluted animated features of late.

For the kids, it’s a fine first taste of plot twists and a set up for hopefully a growing interest in Doyle’s characters (my daughter warmed up to the pair in the end), and it’s actually less traumatizing for the youngest of fans, even if the delicate feel and perilous stakes of the first movie are lost along the way. The message about appreciating a partner while still maintaining your individuality provides a nice lesson for them too. Sherlock Gnomes isn’t as fulfilling for the parents in the audience, but appropriately it meets the entertainment needs of the elementary crowd just fine.

So I’ll let my daughter have the last words on this one: “That was so cool!”

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.