A Renaissance tragedy about two teenagers who, in a matter of days, fall in love, marry, are torn apart by their feuding families, and die is not a likely source text for an animated children’s movie. Yet, somehow, the writers behind Gnomeo & Juliet have managed to turn Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet into a jauntily funny movie without straying too far from the original.
Gnomeo & Juliet opens on a garden gnome before a stage curtain, reading from the prologue to Romeo and Juliet before the scene cuts to two English cottages owned by avid gardeners who hate each other. This animosity has trickled down to the community of lawn gnomes who tend the gardens on either side of the fence. The red gnomes hate the blue gnomes, though none of them can remember why. One night, Gnomeo (James McAvoy), a blue gnome, falls in love with Juliet (Emily Blunt), a red gnome. Assisted by a plastic frog, Nanette (Ashley Jensen), the two strike up a secret romance in the yard of a nearby abandoned house. The growing war between their families, however, threatens to tear them apart forever.
At times I was distracted by the number of gnomes involved. I mean, really, does anyone have that many? What saved the setting for me was the lonely lawn flamingo, Featherstone (Jim Cummings) who is introduced about mid-way through the story and who vaguely fills the role of Friar Laurence. The character is so funny and so endearing he is easily my favorite part of the movie.
I am left asking why Romeo and Juliet needed to be turned into a children’s film at all. Personally, I don’t think it’s one of the Bard’s better plays and it’s been adapted and readapted to death. I was skeptical that Gnomeo & Juliet would have anything to contribute to the conversation. Of course, there is always the possibility that entertainment need not accomplish anything but amusing the audience for an hour or two, but I think this film also demonstrates how classic tales can be made accessible to children without removing every bad feeling they may include. I think it’s refreshing how much credit Gnomeo & Juliet gives its young audience. Although things work out much, much better for the star-crossed lovers in this adaptation of the play, through a cameo appearance of Shakespeare in statue-form the writers make clear that the original ending of the story was, in fact, tragic. A savvy child viewer is given the information he or she needs to understand that what is presented here is a retelling of an old, sad story.
For the adult audience, the movie is full of quippy dialogue and double entendres as well as a plethora of Shakespearean in-jokes so that it’s almost a scavenger hunt for references to other plays and characters. Further, the inclusion of Elton John’s music and repeated exploration of love stories torn apart by exterior influences provides plenty to keep a grown-up engaged.
For clever craftsmanship and thoughtful consideration of duel audiences, as well as for just being a lot of fun, I rate Gnomeo & Juliet 4/5 stars.
Gnomeo & Juliet was directed written by Kelly Ashbury with Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, and Andy Riley based upon the screenplay of Steve Hamilton Shaw, John R. Smith, and Rob Sprackling, based upon the play by William Shakespeare. It was produced by Elton John and runs 84 minutes. Rated G.