A computer-animated picture courtesy of the House of Mouse that was stuck in development hell for many years (Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet were originally attached to voice the leads) and with a staggering nine credited writers, Gnomeo & Juliet most likely began life as a one-line idea based on a clever pun. Despite these aspects working against it, Gnomeo & Juliet is a bright, boundlessly enjoyable animated romp that amusingly turns William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet on its head. It actually appeals to viewers of most age groups, too – adults will be consistently amused by the references and in-jokes to Shakespeare’s famed works (including a snide opening sequence), while the kids will learn a bit about the original play as they become enraptured by the likeable characters and the fast-paced narrative machinations. Sure, Gnomeo & Juliet is on the lightweight side and it in no way can compare to the thematic complexity of Pixar’s most accomplished works, but it is fun and easygoing. Sometimes, that’s just enough.
Next-door neighbours on Verona Drive in a serene English suburb, Miss Montague (Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Wilson) are sworn enemies whose feud extends to the community of garden gnomes and assorted lawn decorations in their backyards. Coming alive when their human owners are not around, the red and blue-hatted gnomes may be separated by a fence, but they often interact to bicker and compete in lawnmower races in the alley behind their houses. From these two feuding families emerges star-crossed lovers Gnomeo (McAvoy) and Juliet (Blunt), who share a meet cute when their colours are camouflaged and decide to give into their mutual feelings. Working to ensure their relationship is kept a secret with help from friendly plastic flamingo Featherstone (Cummings), Gnomeo and Juliet are confronted with a seemingly impossible uphill battle for neighbourhood peace.
Speaking from a structural standpoint, Gnomeo & Juliet is standard-order stuff. The feature is based on an age-old tale of forbidden love, but the peripherals are entirely derived from the 21st Century computer-animated family film playbook – it feels like Toy Story and Over the Hedge merged with William Shakespeare. The concept of using gnomes is amusing, and this is exploited for gags playing on the inherent limitations of being ceramic. To the credit of the filmmakers, Gnomeo & Juliet is a quick-witted slice of family entertainment, demanding multiple viewings in order to pick up on all the gags. Shakespeare fans will likely appreciate the occasional references to the Bard’s work through visual cues (a moving company is called As You Like It) and dialogue (at one stage, a character says “Out, out” and another chimes in with “out spot“), not to mention Patrick Stewart pops in towards the end for a cameo as a bronze Shakespeare statue. The sheer energy of the material is never subdued for any great length of time, and a bevy of classic Elton John tunes (John executive produced) were reworked into orchestral arrangements or used for montages. Alas, not every joke is a home run – a slow-mo fighting sequence parodying The Matrix is a decade late, as is a nod to American Beauty – but at least the picture is never boring.
The world of Gnomeo & Juliet is visually and aesthetically stunning, with animation that borders on photorealism. The gnomes are extraordinarily detailed, and the filmmakers did a superlative job of creating an entire world from what amounts to two insignificant adjoining backyards. Common backyard items were worked into the plot to ingenious extents; making good use of decorative knickknack to either further the story or enrich the humour. However, there is not a great deal to be found below the surface –Gnomeo & Juliet is thematically vacant outside of the “true love conquers all” angle and a few comments on race relations that are a bit too on the nose. (At one stage, Gnomeo and Juliet point out their colours to Featherstone, who replies “And I’m a pink, who cares?“) However, this is not too much of an issue. Without reaching the profound thematic depths of Pixar, Gnomeo & Juliet is pure shallow entertainment that works thanks to the concept’s inherent cuteness and the quality of the execution.
Not to mention, those working behind the scenes managed to assemble an excellent bevy of talent for the voice cast. Disney have the money to recruit big names, so listen closely for familiar voices in more than just the principal roles – even the likes of Hulk Hogan, Patrick Stewart and Ozzy Osbourne feature in small supporting roles (Stewart in particular brings gravitas with a capital ‘G’). As the pair of titular lovers, James McAvoy and Emily Blunt are suitably cute and charming, while Michael Caine and Maggie Smith afford class and substance to their family patriarchs roles. Meanwhile, an underused Jason Statham makes Tybalt sound like a true bully, and Ashley Jensen is bubbly and quick-witted as a garden frog and Juliet’s best friend (the counterpart to the original story’s Nurse character). Jim Cummings is the standout as Featherstone the flamingo, though – his dialogue is bursting with comedic gusto.
Boasting plenty of chuckles and a whimsical charm, Gnomeo & Juliet is not an instant classic, but it is good enough to win over kids and their respective parents for an easygoing night of family entertainment. While the gimmick of sending up Shakespeare will likely be lost on the kids – who will nonetheless enjoy the vibrant colour palette, fast pace and overall cuteness – older and more literate viewers will be able to appreciate the satire peppered throughout the script. This is not even close to being the definitive Romeo & Juliet retelling, but it’s a fun reworking of a familiar tale.