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Gnomeo & Juliet

February 12, 2011
Gnomeo and Juliet

As the years go by, I come to a greater and greater appreciation of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the titular roles. Yes, when it came out it was hip to bash, as some girl dragged you along to it, but it was actually an earnest attempt to update the story and yet remain true to the material. Nothing of the sort can be said for Touchstone’s Gnomeo & Juliet, where the action is transferred to a duplex on Verona Street and it’s two rival clans of garden gnomes.

Their feud seems to stem from a beef between the two owners — a Mrs. Montague in blue and a Mr. Capulet in red — though it’s hard to imagine what could separate two people of such obviously complementary atrocious taste. Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a “blue”, while Juliet (Emily Blunt) is a “red”, the actual names evidently being restricted to the homeowners. Of course they meet and fall in love, but the rest is almost unrecognizable.

The big problem of course is the ending. Like all of Shakespeare’s plays named after a character who’s not a real person, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy, and everyone dies at the end. Obviously this won’t do for a children’s movie, and so it has to be changed, and the entire meaning of the work along with it. Bizarrely, the movie actually tries to defend this decision by way of a conversation with a park statue of “Bill Shakespeare” (Patrick Stewart), who tells how his version ends. The film’s argument to the contrary, depicted by Gnomeo, amounts to “that’s a stupid ending.” The whole exchange is so incredibly metatextual that it would be easier to believe in living garden gnomes than that someone thought it would be a good idea to include in a children’s movie.

So we know that there’s going to be a happy ending; how the movie gets from point A to point B, though, is an incredible mess. It does hit some of the standard points — the balcony scene, Tybalt’s death, Gnomeo’s exile, mistaken beliefs in a character’s death — but they’re drowned in a sea of random, ill-considered set-pieces. I can only ascribe this to the presence of eight credited writers, working off of an “original” screenplay by two more. There is nothing really coherent underlying a chaotic sequence of sight gags and bad puns that only the adults in the audience could get.

And whose idea, exactly, was it to basically license Elton John’s entire songbook? If I didn’t know it was supposed to be an adaptation of Shakespeare, I would think it was one of those musicals with the barest of plots thrown together to awkwardly segue from one to another of some artist’s hit songs that were never really meant to go together in the first place. In either case, they’re mostly mangled like the story is, and do more to annoy the older audience rather than giving them a hook to smile knowingly at. In any event, I suppose they assumed that all the kids would have left the theater by the time the credit for “The Bitch Is Back” rolled.

I will give the movie respect on one count: the animation itself is really well-done. They did an excellent job of capturing the physicality of painted plaster garden gnomes. In closeups, you can see the brushstrokes in the painted-on irises that could just as easily have been solid rings of color. The textures are finely-crafted, and the effort on the part of the computer animators doesn’t go unnoticed. The palette is bright and cheery, though I have to wonder how much better it could have been without the dimming effects of the pointless 3-D process.

The technical aspects are all there, but they lack a story worth telling. The fundamental idea of an animated movie about garden gnomes isn’t a bad one, but it’s a shame that this is how it actually comes to market.

Worth it: no.
Bechdel test: fail.

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