Shrek 2 director Kelly Asbury’s Gnomeo & Juliet takes that most classic of William Shakespeare plays about star-crossed lovers and turns it into a bizarre, Elton John-fueled, at-times vaguely psychedelic animated family comedy. Oh, yeah, and it’s populated by a CG cast of walking, talking garden gnomes.
A little caveat before we proceed: I try to approach every movie with an open mind. I did not in this particular case. It didn’t seem like a movie worth covering for you Spinoff readers nor did it feel like something I would ever seek out to watch on my own. I didn’t walk out thinking it was a great movie, or even a good movie, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a blast watching the thing. And in the end, isn’t that part of the point, if not the whole point?
If you know the story of Romeo & Juliet then you pretty much know how things are going to play out, save for the ending. Yes, there is definitely a “happily ever after” tagged to the end of this telling, although there’s also a remarkably meta consideration of that change by an animated statue of Shakespeare (voiced by Patrick Stewart). Whether or not you agree with the assessment of “liking this one better,” at least the original ending is explained for the benefit of younger audiences.
In Gnomeo, the Montague and Capulet names live on in two crotchety neighbors who have elaborate backyard gardens filled with all manner of gnomes and other decorations. The lawn ornaments remain inanimate objects for only as long as people are watching; once they’re alone, the gnomes come to life and play out the war between the Montague/Capulet neighbors in their own divided red and blue communities.
The only 100-percent unnecessary aspect of the film is its 3-D presentation. If you’re really looking for it I suppose you’ll find some added depth in the wider landscape shots. All in all, though, the 3-D is so subtle you’ll only know it’s there if you take off your glasses to rub your eyes.
As for the rest of it … for me, the movie played like some bizarre fever dream. Gnomes staging lawnmower drag races, a plastic pink flamingo with a thick Spanish accent, mute stone bunnies that use their ears to speak in sign language, a giant riding lawnmower called the Terrafirminator with a built-in Caterpillar scoop, a sentient blue-topped mushroom with the personality of a household dog … and lots, lots more, all of it set to the mostly instrumental strains of Elton John’s most popular tunes. This is a weird, weird movie, no two ways about it. Fans of the kiddie series Yo Gabba Gabba will find a lot to like here, more than they might expect.
The voice cast does fine. No one delivers an offensive reading, and stars James McAvoy and Emily Blunt seem to be having a good time, as does Stewart in his too-brief Shakespeare appearance. Jim Cummings’ pink flamingo Featherstone is also kind of awesome, though I credit that as much to the fake bird’s spindly plastic legs and awkward movements as I do to Cummings’ performance.
Speaking of Featherstone’s awkward movements, the visual presentation as a whole is top-notch. Unnecessary 3-D aside, Starz Animation did some truly exceptional work here. This is a colorful, vibrant film. The story is a little empty of feeling, sticking mostly to surface-level humor and common-denominator emotional cues, but it’s got a very lively feel thanks to the visual design.
Walking out of Gnomeo & Juliet, I struggled to decide whether I liked it. Ultimately, I settled on: I had a great time, and that’s what matters. If you’re reading this review then you’re probably not the intended audience. I can’t say that I ever would have sought out this movie on my own, either in theaters or at home, but in the end I left happy at getting to see this oddly charming story unfold. You might not have the same experience, but if you like the occasional kid-friendly movie and subscribe to the “weirder is better” school — and if you’re okay with being assaulted by Elton John instrumentals for two hours — then dial down your expectations and get in line.
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