As a small red gnome informs us at the start of Gnomeo and Juliet, “The story you are about to see has been told before. A lot.” What crazed mind thought a retelling of Shakespeare’s (too) oft-told tale, Romeo and Juliet, starring garden gnomes, would be a good idea? Some twisted genius, perhaps. Whoever the culprits were, I’m grateful. Because this distinctly untypical animated film with minimal Disney associations and absolutely no product placement that I could discern was actually a lot of fun.
The kid loved its bright colors and silly characters, but there were Shakespearean in-jokes sprinkled about that the quick-of-eye adult could also enjoy. Some that I caught (I’m sure there are many more): the numbers on the semi-detached houses of the feuding Montagues and Capulets are 2B and Not 2B. A Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moving company truck can be spotted, as well as “Stratford-Upon-Avon” as the destination on a double-decker bus. When heroine Juliet is tangling with a very large (to her) neighborhood bulldog who is trying to push his way into her yard she yells, “Out, out!” to him while his owner on the other side of the fence curses, “Damn Spot!”
The dialogue is clever, as evidenced by Juliet’s reworked balcony speech, “Oh Gnomeo, oh Gnomeo, are we really doomed to never see each other again? Why must you wear a blue hat? Why couldn’t it be red like my father’s? Or green like a leprechaun? Or purple like, um… like, uh… like some weird guy? I mean, what’s in a Gnome? Because you’re blue my father sees red, and because I’m red, I’m feeling blue.” Juliet not only gets to utter the only major monologue, but is a much more sassy and interesting character than the Bard’s original teen queen. Gnomeo isn’t just captivated by her beauty as was his alter-ego Romeo, but by her acrobatics and independent spirit. Juliet is a modern female … gnome.
Juliet is voiced by Emily Blunt, Gnomeo by James McAvoy, and her seeing-red father by Michael Caine. Other easily-identifiable vocal talents include Maggie Smith, Patrick Stewart, Ozzy Osbourne and Jason Statham, to name just a few. The film is full of snippets of greatest Elton John/Bernie Taupin hits like “Your Song,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” which work well in their new context of the apparently age-old battle between red gnomes and blue gnomes. John also delivers a new version of Crocodile Rock, this time a duet with Nelly Furtado. It’s always interesting to hear the back-stories of movies and Gnomeo and Juliet apparently has quite a long one, with John being involved since 2000.
Director Kelly Asbury was a name I didn’t know, but after a little digging around on imdb I discovered that his work is very familiar (especially in our house). He directed Shrek 2 and has worked in various capacities on many great animated films: storyboard on Kung Fu Panda and James and the Giant Peach, assistant art director on The Nightmare Before Christmas, as an artist on Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
Gnomeo and Juliet shows off the years of hard work that went into making it, as the little details — the ceramic “clink” whenever the gnomes touch, their rough or shiny surfaces, the vast variety of gnomes and other garden decor — all add to the fun of the film. Shakespeare may not have recognized this latest adaptation of his tragic romance at first, but I’m sure he would have approved. He wasn’t exactly known for plot originality, as his tale of feuding families was based on an older Italian one. Shakespeare brought his signature language and dramatic structure to already-established stories, just as Asbury and Co. have brought their talents to the timeless tale of “two households, both alike in dignity … ” and created an engaging tale of star-cross’d gnomes.