Romeo & Juliet is probably the best known play written by William Shakespeare and it has been adapted several times, although not always successfully. Now Walt Disney Pictures brings the timeworn story of blind hatred and blind love to a whole new age group with Gnomeo & Juliet. The film’s success, however, really depends on the viewer. Younger audiences will find the movie cute enough, but won’t appreciate any of the Shakespeare references and will probably be confused by several of the gags. Older audiences who have studied the Bard will smile at all of the allusions, but will probably be annoyed by most of the characters. Either way, everyone will leave the theater with a bit of what they’re looking for though with not quite as much as they would like.
On Verona Street, Mr. Capulet and Miss Montague are feisty next door neighbors with a penchant for gardening and adhering to a single color – red or blue. Their rivalry extends all the way down to the decorative gnomes with which they decorate their gardens. Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) is the patriarch of the Red side and keeps a close eye on his willful daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt), who wants to prove her worth by snatching a rare flower from an adjacent, abandoned garden. On the other side of the fence, Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) encourages her skillful son Romeo (James McAvoy) to menace the Reds. When he’s out on a raid with his friend Benny (Matt Lucas), a disguised Romeo meets a disguised Juliet and the two fall in love with each other, not realizing that the other is part of the rival color. When they discover each other’s true identity, the couple, with the help of a flamboyant pink flamingo, decides that their love is more important than any feud, but with both sides escalating attacks, keeping their love safe and secret becomes a challenge that could destroy them both.
Gnomeo & Juliet will be difficult to appreciate without at least a loose understanding of the source material. For instance, it’s important to know which characters in the film correlate to specific characters in the play, such as Featherstone (Jim Cummings) who takes the place of Friar Lawrence. This character had a very specific, plot-related role in the play, but in the film he seems extraneous as comic relief. A handful of plot elements may also seem arbitrary without knowing the original story. For instance, it’s important to know that Romeo is banished to Mantua after killing Tybalt, because the penalty for murder is death and the Prince of Verona is after him. Gnomeo also kills this version’s Tybalt and has to temporarily flee, because the Reds are out in force and out for blood, but there’s no reason for Gnomeo to stay away except as a cute reason to have a meta-conversation with a statue of Shakespeare. Not knowing the original play won’t prevent anyone from enjoying Gnomeo & Juliet, but the moments when the film tries to stay true to the original work without offering the same context might seem odd.
The concept for the film is very stylish and fully realized. While garden enthusiasts will get the biggest kick out of seeing the ubiquitous lawn accessories come to life, even those who only have a vague understanding of garden gnomes will appreciate the irony. The artwork looks great and is easily on par with contemporary animated films. The rules of the garden gnome universe also set up some humorous bits, like the plaster fish that yearns for freedom, but can’t swim or the conjoined gnomes that can’t seem to “quit each other”. The fun stuff works best when subtle.
The soundtrack is provided by Elton John, showcasing a few originals, including a duet with Lady Gaga, but mostly dipping deeply into his extensive catalogue. While his music fits the scenes it decorates mostly well, the film seems to be making a point by featuring John’s work so heavily. John actually makes a short cameo in the film, which is an odd choice since he has absolutely nothing to do with the story and will probably be read into as some kind of political metaphor. Nevertheless, fans of Elton John’s music will definitely love experiencing it in a whole new setting. The voice cast also does a great job in bringing their characters to life and audiences will be pleased to hear familiar voices that aren’t commonly heard in animation, namely Jason Statham and Ozzy Osbourne. It’s a wonder why these two haven’t done more voice work.
Families looking for a film that everyone can appreciate will find a worthwhile time with Gnomeo & Juliet. It’s a fun film with excellent creative vision and wonderful production value. Regrettably, the story seems hampered by catering too much to its source material. The film might have been better served by being written as a completely original work rather than written to satisfy a clever title. Overall, Gnomeo & Juliet won’t replace anyone’s favorite animated film, but it’s still a pleasant distraction for lovers of the medium.