Gnomeo & Juliet
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Shakespeare it ain’t — although it is — Gnomeo & Juliet takes the bard’s classic tragedy and spins it into a colourful tale of 3-D lawn ornaments that tries hard to please with frenetic action, Borscht-Belt humour and a poppy Elton John soundtrack.
The animation brings the story of Romeo and Juliet to a pair of English suburban gardens, home to constantly scrapping neighbours Miss Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson).
But while the humans brandish hedge trimmers at each other, that’s tame compared to the hate war between the red-capped lawn gnomes that dwell on one side of the fence and the blue-hatted variety that reside in the other.
Lawn mower drag races take the place of swordfights when it comes to settling old clan scores (Dolly Parton has a cameo voicing a pneumatic Daisy Duke-style race-starting gnome). And the usual suspects like Tybalt (Jason Statham) and Paris (Stephen Merchant) are augmented by new sidekicks. Ozzy Osbourne is amusing as the dim-witted, gambling-addicted lawn ornament Fawn the deer, whose head is clearly made of cement and Featherstone the lovesick Latin plastic flamingo (Jim Cummings) almost flies off with the movie.
The star-crossed ceramic lovers Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) discover each other while in disguise on moonlight spy missions to infiltrate the other’s yard. Sparks fly as lips meet with an amusing china “clink,” but woe to these gnomes who later discover they are ancient enemies.
As Disney did so well with Tangled’s Rapunzel, Juliet follows the new standard of the studio’s independent heroine. Brave and brazen, she stands on her own two porcelain feet and can best any boy at athletics and smarts. She has no need of a fellow to complete her.
The 3-D is used to good effect but the dialogue holds nothing as clever as you find in Pixar fare, or Disney’s successful Shrek franchise, although co-writer/director Kelly Asbury did helm the Oscar-nominated Shrek 2.
The cast is packed with voices you’ll know and some moviegoers will be driven to distraction trying to recall just who they are hearing when the wee folk open their mouths. Yes, that is Michael Caine as Lord Redbrick, Patrick Stewart as Bill Shakespeare and Hulk Hogan as the total turf-obliterating Terrafirmenator lawn mower.
Hopping off with the best gags is sprightly Scot Ashley Jensen (Ugly Betty, Extras) as the water-spouting fountain dweller Nanette the frog, who ably covers the role of Juliet’s Shakespearean Nurse with a bad case of the boy crazies thrown in.
Unlike animated hit The Lion King, where Elton John co-wrote the songs with Tim Rice, this time the Rocket Man can’t seem to keep himself out of the picture. As executive producer (alongside husband David Furnish, who gets a producer credit) John’s influence goes far beyond the ‘70s-heavy soundtrack. Nerdy gnome Paris is a dead ringer for the singer with his oversized glasses.
A character named Benny was clearly designed so we can get a few choruses of — guess what song? And a final number featuring duelling John whirligigs is just plain annoying.
As John said at the London premiere of Gnomeo & Juliet: “It’s taken 11 years because Disney weren’t enthusiastic about gnomes at one point and we persuaded them to stay with it.”
Perhaps curbing John’s enthusiasm would have been a wiser garden path to follow.
Linda Barnard is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.