Who wouldn’t want to see a movie starring the dream cast of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith, with cameos by Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton, Patrick Stewart and Hulk Hogan? They had me at James McAvoy.
Throw in some Shakespeare source material and music by Elton John, and one would think we were set. But Gnomeo and Juliet does the seeming impossible—takes all of these phenomenal elements and churns out a movie that’s only sporadically entertaining and completely forgettable. Unlike its durable garden decoration characters, this movie will wash out of your brain with the first drizzle.
Gnomeo and Juliet’s first and biggest problem is its lack of original, engaging characters. Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art thou, Gnomeo? Who knows, but he’s just your standard love-stricken youth determined to prove himself to the world and win his girl, while Juliet is your standard spunky heroine who’s trapped in a narrow female role but has the ninja skills to fight out.
This isn’t the fault of their voicers, McAvoy and Blunt, who do perfectly fine work but can’t make up what’s not in the script. Yes, the star-crossed lovers are both short, stocky and made of plaster, but there’s very little else about Gnomeo and Juliet particular to their gnomeanity. To get far too deep about what is after all, a movie about lawn ornaments, the gnome idea seems to have been grasped upon for cute value but insufficiently delved for character truth and specificity.
The plot hews pretty closely to its source, with the Montagues known as the Blues and the Capulets as the Reds, although fortunately, this being a children’s movie, the tragic double suicide at the end is now a happy ending. Unlike Toy Story, with its toys who want to get back to their owner, the premise of Gnomeo/Romeo and Juliet —a vicious, age-old rivalry between clans—is rooted in an adult world, alien and not inherently compelling or even comprehensible to children.
My six-year-old asked what “feud” meant and didn’t truly seem to grasp the concept even after it was explained. My four year old only understand that the two sides were neighbors playing games. Let’s call this problem number two.
As for problem number three, I’m sure my kids aren’t the only ones who don’t get the joke of garden gnomes, lawn flamingoes and frog fountains, having never seen any of these in their lives. So a lot of the humor of seeing usually inanimate objects animated is simply lost on them. Besides, though the gnomes are cute enough, it’s hard for their plug-like bodies and button features to get all that ANIMATED.
It doesn’t help that the protagonists’ sidekicks—a dog-like mushroom (“Shroom”) and a frog fountain (Nanette)—are annoying, and most of the other supporting characters rather… stiff. Michael Caine’s East End accent comes in as a nice bit of casting in the role of Juliet’s overprotective father, who literally puts his daughter on a pedestal, but Maggie Smith is wasted as Gnomeo’s bellicose mother. I did find the respective sides’ speechless Greek choruses (mini gnomes for the Reds, cement bunnies for the Blues) pretty irresistible.
There are the usual jokes meant to fly over the kids’ heads and tickle their parents, with lots of Shakespearean puns and even a shout-out to The Graduate. A higher-than-normal percentage of the adult-aged jokes seemed sexual in nature (a running gag about gnome hat size envy, for instance); a lower-than-normal percentage seemed very clever or funny.
It says something that my favorite bits were the high-testosterone, Hulk Hogan-voiced ad for the Terrafirmenator and the psychedelic graphics of the music video-like segment of Gnomeo and Juliet falling in love—essentially breaks from the movie’s real story and usual storytelling style. Aside from these, Gnomeo and Juliet unfolds pretty much exactly as you’d imagine, with most of the humor coming from visual gags like a toilet repurposed as a planter and two gnomes posing as a wheelbarrow and gardener—more jokes totally lost on the kids, who recognize neither the real-life referents nor the supposed innate humor of working class garden ornamentation.
The soundtrack must be mentioned. The movie is, after all, executive produced by Elton John (his husband, David Furnish, also gets a producer credit), and features kid-lite versions of a big chunk of the classic Elton John catalog, including Saturday Night, Crocodile Rock, Your Song, Rocket Man and Tiny Dancer (that was an easy call, eh?). If that’s not enough, there are several instances of gnomes costumed as various incarnations of Sir John himself from over the decades, although, or course, they are recognized only by the grown-ups.
Despite its relatively lean 84 minute running time, the movie skidded through slow patches. My usually enthralled kids (and most of the other, less well-behaved children in the theater) got restless and fidgety, wondering, like me, when the film would be over. Brevity, it seems, is necessary but not sufficient for wit.