We live in the Age of Pixar where the art of animation has been elevated to its highest form yet. The real genius of that small California start-up was twofold. They combined the latest high-end computer graphics with primal emotional story-telling to create such cinematic gems as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E. This bodes well for moviegoers young and young-at-heart but sends chills down the back of any film exec daring to wade into Pixar's pond. It is in this environment that Starz Animation and director Kelly Asbury bring the classic Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet to life as the decidedly less tragic Gnomeo & Juliet. Moving the action from fair Verona to neighboring gardens on Verona Street, Gnomeo & Juliet pits two color-coded gnome clans against each other as the titular duo risk life and limb for their forbidden love. Despite such strong and venerated source material, Gnomeo & Juliet fails to deliver in the plot department, producing an uninspired and emotionally hollow film that sports just enough visual splendor and cute sidelights to keep you and the little ones interested.
The film opens on two feuding neighbors: the red-hatted garden gnomes led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and the blue-hatted garden gnomes led by Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith). Only a simple wooden fence separates these sworn enemies. Tybalt (Jason Statham) is the dashing red-hatted gnome who defends the honor of his clan from any usurper. Up to the plate steps Gnomeo (James McAvoy) the blue-hatted gnome who challenges Tybalt in that most sacred of battles, the lawnmower race. Sparks fly as the two race down the back alley leading to Gnomeo's defeat. Determined to defend his honor once and for all, Gnomeo embarks on a secret quest to gain the upper hand when fate drops a little crimson gnomette by the name of Juliet (Emily Blunt) right into his midst. All it takes is one look under the moonlight sky to set in motion their forbidden love.
Gnomeo & Juliet combines three of the greatest cultural exports of the British Isles – Shakespeare, garden gnomes, and eccentric British humor. Sadly, not a single one of these elements in the film does its home country justice. The Shakespeare is all but lost in translation, the garden gnomes look downright creepy, and the British humor flew over my head on many an occasion. What's more, Gnomeo & Juliet borrows so many elements from its cinematic forefathers that you could be forgiven for thinking you had seen this flick already. A mute ceramic mushroom serves as a forgettable second-rate sidekick. The plastic flamingo is simply a bad take on the genie from Aladdin. And worst of all, the film is about a decade out of date with awkward direct references to The Matrix, American Beauty, and, wait for it, Brokeback Mountain. But what’s in it for the kids? In between all the flat jokes flying over their heads, they'll only be partially drawn into the superficial characters and unnecessary dance sequences.
Yet I find myself humming along to the incessant beat of Elton John in my head. The only saving grace of Gnomeo & Juliet is the passable quality of its animation, music, and effects. The subtle clinks of the ceramic characters moving about and the lush 3D foliage of the garden swaying in the wind put a smile on my face. Even the overabundance of digitally altered, kid-friendly Elton John couldn't hide the fact that it was still Elton John and worth a listen. Is all this enough to recommend Gnomeo & Juliet? Simply put, no.
In the end, Gnomeo & Juliet feels like a poor man's Toy Story, a film that had all the right elements that simply didn't fit into place. At times it is borderline cute and even earns an occasional chuckle, but the 84 dreary minutes quickly begin to drag. In the hands of a more experienced production team, I could see myself falling in love with these star-crossed lovers. But in this case, I was left with a forgettable pair whose garden hijinks needed a desperate dose of creative fertilizer.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Release Date: February 11th, 2011
Starring the voices of: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Matt Lucas, and Patrick Stewart
Director: Kelly Asbury
Writers: Kelly Asbury, Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Kathy Greenberg, Emily Cook, Steve Hamilton Shaw & Rob Sprackling and John R. Smith