The greatest love story every told was first performed in the late sixteenth century by the bard we all know and love as Billy Shakespeare. Quite prolific in his day, he’s become even more so with the advent of talking pictures, and what is arguably his most famous play has been adapted countless times in last century of flickering images in darkened rooms. Perhaps the most filmed of all Shakespeare’s plays, the most famous of the adaptations are undoubtedly George Cukor’s (1936), Franco Zeffirelli’s (1968) – the first to cast teens in the lead roles – and Baz Luhrmann‘s fast-paced, music-inspired piece that anticipated the mash-up generation. Of course, there have been other off the wall adaptations including the inspired West Side Story (1961), the less-inspired martial arts Romeo Must Die (2000) and the anime Romeo X Juliet (2007). Yet in all of this, nobody has thought of attempting to retell the story using garden gnomes. At least until now.
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene. Both little English cottages are virtually identical, with one very important difference: one house is ensconced in blue, and the other in red. When the antagonistic owners are away or asleep, the inhabitants of the garden come to life and wage a secret war against each other. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is a headstrong Blue, having already lost his father and secretly egged on by his mother Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith, Harry Potter) in the war against the Reds. Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt, Gulliver’s Travels) is a feisty Red, despite her father Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine, Inception) quite literally placing her on a pedestal.
Although released by Disney (under the Touchstone banner), this is actually from Rocket Pictures, the production company that superstar Elton John and his husband David Furnish formed in 1996. The animation was done by Starz Animation, who have previously worked on a patchy lot of titles including Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (the sequel nobody asked for), Veggie Tales (the Christian success story nobody understands) and 9 (the critically acclaimed film nobody saw). Gnomeo & Juliet is consistent with the patchy history of this studio, although still has much to offer the casual animation fan. The film is peppered with classic Elton John songs, such as “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, romantic faithful “Your Song” and, course, “Tiny Dancer”. Others are reworked versions of “Hello, Hello” (with Lady Gaga) and “Crocodile Rock” (with Nelly Furtado), while composer James Newton Howard (the guy you go to when Howard Shore is unavailable) weaves selections of John’s tunes into his score. While these are possibly a none-too-subtle attempt at boosting the royalties off producer Elton’s back-catalogue, they do provide a retro energy to the film consistent with the anachronistic musical choices that can be found in Dreamworks animated films.
Director and co-writer Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) – along with a cornucopia of writers including Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil (Robbie the Reindeer), Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg and Andy Riley (uncredited on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) – throws in everything including the kitchen sink, and that isn’t always a good thing. While there are certainly enough wall-to-wall pop-cultural references to make sure you are paying attention, many of these will fly over the heads of the little ones. There’s even a musical reference to the Disneyland attraction, The Enchanted Tiki Room. Far more worrying is the structural defects to these two houses, with the gimmick really not having enough to warrant a feature-length film. Indeed, this may have been an excellent short before a feature. Yet for all of this there is an essential charm to the story, and despite not being made directly by the House of Mouse, this is a very sanitised version of the classic tale. There will be no double suicides here, that much you can be sure of, but as the Patrick Stewart-voiced William Shakespeare statue notes, his ending was better anyway. A massive cast of actors – including Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton, Jason Statham, Hulk Hogan to name but a few – bring ample life to the lifeless characters, but despite the cheeky edge it tries to bring to the tale (a gnome in a mankini, anyone?), it still plays it very safe.
The Reel Bits: A novel take on the greatest love story ever told has a great deal of fun in it, but even with the 3D, bits of it fall a flat. The Elton John soundtrack and wonderful cast of actors buoy this above some other direct-to-DVD efforts, and there is still a few chuckles to be had in this off-beat romance.
As the medium of film evolves to suit its audience, the trend towards modern revisions of literary and stage classics will continue. The works of William Shakespeare have provided ample fodder for updated cinematic adaptations in the past (particularly teen fare Ten Things I Hate About You, Get Over It, She’s The Man and O), and will no doubt do so in the future. Translating the Bard’s most celebrated tragedy to the realm of a suburban English garden may be one of the more unusual interpretations of his output thus far, however director Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) attempts to retain the spirit of the original whilst churning out a family-friendly production. Despite the fact that seven (that’s right, seven) writers were involved in bringing to life an original screenplay from Animal Show‘s John R. Smith and Rob Sprackling, Gnomeo & Juliet generally succeeds in adding an accessible air to its classic content, even if a distinct over-emphasis is placed on the assimilation Elton John’s musical catalogue (complete with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, “Rocket Man” and “Bennie And The Jets”) in the execution of the concept.
With proficient animation and unobtrusive 3D rendering adding aesthetic depth to the gnome protagonists, the narrative that unravels is colourful and cute, although not as clever as it thinks it is. Allowing a backyard war between garden ornaments to provide the foundation for the Shakespearean premise, it accentuates levity over the more serious elements of story, in fitting with the juvenile target market. Thankfully, within such contrived constraints the feature is filled with novelty, even if its eccentricities fail to sustain the meagre 84-minute running time. Accordingly, the voice acting work of James McAvoy and Emily Blunt as the titular pair is the undoubted highlight (taking over from the originally cast couple of The Ghost Writer‘s Ewan McGregor and Revolutionary Road‘s Kate Winslet), with their effectiveness likely to cause adult viewers to ponder the success of a live-action version starring the duo. The likes of Extras‘ Ashley Jensen and Little Britain‘s Matt Lucas provide ample support, and Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan and Patrick Stewart also pop up in obligatory celebrity cameos. Whilst perhaps most notable for introducing Elton John’s music to a new generation, overall Gnomeo & Juliet is endearing, playful and self-referential, as well as derivative, disposable and forgettable.
The Reel Bits: A film for the family market, Gnomeo & Juliet offers plenty of fun for the kids but little substance for adults. Purists will frown upon the many liberties taken with the timeless tale, however for those willing to go along with the frivolity the feature is not without its charms.
Gnomeo & Juliet is released on February 17, 2011 in Australia by Walt Disney Studios.