Rarely has there been a brainstorm conference so harebrained as the one from which this Anglo-American animated feature must have sprung. You can imagine the assignment: to update a Shakespeare play, but using tiny mythical creatures. Hmmm… The Smurfant of Venice? How about Elf Night?
Then an inspiration: Gnomeo & Juliet! That’s it: a love story set in adjacent back yards filled with rival families of garden gnomes. Since the gnomes are really just miniature statues, they can get by with very few expressions; that means major savings in time and artistic output. And they are nearly identical in appearance, so they can be easily replicated by the hundreds in CGI. Get it? They’re the toys in Toy Story, except they’re all the same toy! As for the plot, why, the thing writes itself, mostly because Will wrote it 419 years ago. We’ll have to change the ending, though. There’s no dying in cartoons.
Defiantly derivative and groaning from joke overload, this Disney pickup takes more than half its running time to find a distinctive tone, a reason for being. In the meantime, director Kelly Asbury burrows along in familiar ruts, assuming that his target demographics of tots and tweens will be so deeply steeped in classic pop culture that they will appreciate the endless parodies, or forgeries, of West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, The Terminator, Transformers, Big and a dozen others. The result is a knockoff cinematic ceramic.
The story concocted by Asbury and his eight writers — Mark Burton of DreamWorks’ Madagascar, two pairs of Brit sitcom writers and another duo that worked on Pixar’s Ratatouille, plus producer Steve Hamilton Shaw — posits that twin houses in an English neighborhood contain separate but equal gardens elaborately ornamented with pointy-hatted gnomes. One group is painted blue: that would be Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and his tribe, headed by Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith). The other is red: Juliet (Emily Blunt) and her dad Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine). While the blue team’s belligerent Tybalt (Jason Statham) leads lawn-mower races against the red brigade, Gnomeo and Juliet meet and fall in love, backed by a half-dozen songs by Elton John (an executive producer on the film) and Bernie Taupin.
Asbury was one of the directors of Shrek II, and Gnomeo & Juliet relies on the tested DreamWorks strategy of clogging a picture with the greatest number of gags — as in, gag me with a spoon. That strategy worked for a while but by now is stale, at least judging by the number of jokes relying on grass puns (Tybalt wants to “go kick some grass,” and the ultimate killer lawn mower, the Terrafirminator, is referred to as a “weapon of grass destruction”), hiphop references (“Who’s your gnomie?”), flirtatious banter with a mushroom (“Oh, you look like a fun-gi”) and insult humor (“Do I look like I’m a begonia?” “No, more like a pansy”) so lame it needs a rim shot for punctuation. Yadda, yadda, terracotta. See, anybody can do this.
The first Disney feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had a septet of gnome-like figures, but within the cartoon-dwarf guidelines the animators gave each a distinct appearance and personality. Not so here: all the male gnomes look like Amish Ed Asners. Juliet’s porcelain prettiness is also on the generic side. For visual variety the filmmakers must import other garden creatures: the frog Nanette (voiced with lots of personality by Ashley Jensen of HBO’s Extras) and, halfway through the movie, Featherstone the one-legged Flamingo, whom voice maestro Jim Cummings renders in the Spanish cutie-pie accent of Antonio Banderas’s Puss in Boots from the Shrek films.
Featherstone is the one character to break through the wall of clichés and introduce a little poignancy to the enterprise. Seems he once shared, with his lady flamingo, the front garden of a house where a married couple lived. In a montage scored to the John-Taupin “Love Builds a Garden,” the film relates the history of this couple’s love and breakup, their separate custody of the flamingoes, and Featherstone’s broken heart and severed limb — all in two wordless, well-directed minutes. It’s not quite equal in impact to the opening montage of courtship and marriage in Pixar’s Up, but it’s in the ballpark.
After this sad-sweet interlude, Gnomeo left-turns into an antiwar parable. Rivalries escalate; one gnome is beheaded or, to put it more accurately, behatted; the Terrafirminator runs rampant and the gardens are trashed, leaving Gnomeo and Juliet buried beneath the rubble. (Kids need not fear; our lovers have a better chance of surviving than the cave explorers in last week’s Sanctum.) By this time the movie has gained some balance and heft, though we’re not sure the characters deserve the curtain call they get at the very end.
One other thing: the mushroom Nanette flirts with is named Shroo. If the Gnomeo animators do another reduction of Shakespeare, you can expect the Shroo to be Tamed.