Gnomeo & Juliet

The old saying goes “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” or words to that effect.  Of course, if you’re feeling the effects of a love lost you’d probably would have preferred to never have loved at all; but, it’s the pain of love (and I don‘t mean that in a whips-and-chains kind of way) that makes the joy of love that much sweeter.  In Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” the doomed pair knows love for only an instant before they take their own lives due to a misunderstanding.  In this week’s animated feature “Gnomeo & Juliet,” the only thing that can shatter the love of our ceramic heroes is a fall from too great a height onto too hard a surface…or being run over by a car or lawnmower.

Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) is a garden gnome in the backyard of a small home somewhere in Great Britain.  His mother, Lady Bluebury (voiced by Maggie Smith), oversees a garden filled with various types of blue-hat ceramic gnomes, tiny concrete bunnies, mushrooms and other figures, all of which come to life whenever the woman who owns the house isn’t around.  Across the fence in the backyard of the man next door is the realm of the red-hat gnomes, led by Lord Redbrick (voiced by Michael Caine).  His daughter is the beautiful Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt).  Reflecting the animosity the homeowners have for each other, the red and blue gnomes are mortal enemies, running raids on each other’s territories and competing in lawnmower races in the alley behind the houses.  A red hat named Tybalt (voiced by Jason Statham) is particularly cruel and enjoys picking on any blue hat he happens to catch.  Spying a beautiful flower in the yard of an abandoned house nearby, Juliet puts on a disguise that hides her color and sneaks out to bring the flower into her garden.  Gnomeo, his hat covered in mud, plans on conducting a raid in red territory, but his friend Benny (voiced by Matt Lucas) causes an alarm to go off, alerting the red gnomes to their presence.  Escaping by using a pair of skivvies as a parachute, Gnomeo finds himself in the yard of the abandoned house as Juliet makes her move to retrieve the flower.  The pair meet in a playful tussle over the flower and instantly feel an attraction.  After falling into a garden pond, their disguises washed away, the pair discovers they are mortal enemies, but the attraction remains.  Will they ever be together again?

“Gnomeo & Juliet” is a sweet kids movie that also has enough humor to keep adults interested as well.  The voice work by the entire cast, including such surprises as Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton and Hulk Hogan is terrific, giving all the characters vivid personalities and making it easy to tell who to root for and who to boo at.  Jason Statham is a real standout amongst the voice actors as he opens up a verbal can of whoop-ass instead of the usual physical variety.  Statham really lets loose during his more evil lines, giving Tybalt the kind of dark, cruel personality that he hints at in his live action performances.  Of course, seeing Statham deliver his lines in a live-action movie with the same flair and relish as he does in this film would make his character look very silly; like a caricature of the old silent film villain who twirls his mustache as he ties the helpless girl to the railroad tracks.  Still, it was good to hear Statham cut lose and be the baddest bad guy in the garden.

As usually happens, the most interesting and entertaining characters in this animated tale are not the main players but the secondary characters.  Juliet’s best friend is a frog-shaped water nozzle named Nanette who is voiced by Ashley Jensen.  Nanette is a hoot as she tries to both help and hinder Juliet in her budding romance.  In the abandoned home’s backyard, Gnomeo and Juliet discover a discarded plastic pink flamingo named Featherstone, voiced by James Cummings.  Featherstone understands the pain of separation and lost love, as his own plastic flamingo mate was taken away years ago.  He helps the pair see that they can work through their differences to find love.  His Spanish accent reminded me of the voice Robin Williams used in “Happy Feet.”  His neediness after being locked up alone in a storage shed makes him both sad and funny as he hopes his new friends will stick around a while.  There are also very funny characters who don’t speak but say plenty, such as the little concrete bunnies who communicate by tapping their ears together and a mushroom that acts like a bloodhound.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the film.  It moves at a quick pace and even the more romantic sections don’t bog the film down.  There are also many pop culture and visual jokes that the younger members of the audience won’t get but their parents will.  Early in the film, there’s a visual joke that uses house numbers to represent a quote from one of Shakespeare’s other plays.  It was three hours after I saw the movie that I got the joke (no, I‘m not the sharpest knife in the drawer).  The music of Elton John (one of the film’s producers) is used liberally throughout the film.  There are new songs and classics, along with reworked lyrics to some of his past hits.

If there’s anything I could complain about, it’s that the movie doesn’t have enough zaniness to it.  Even though it’s a retelling of a classical play using garden gnomes, it still feels more like a conventional romantic comedy than a madcap animated film.  While there is plenty of humor, most of it is rather subtle, going for the gentle chuckle rather than the belly laugh.  There are several chuckles in the film, but not nearly enough belly laughs.

“Gnomeo & Juliet” is rated G.  There’s nothing in the film that could be considered objectionable, unless you find references to Elton John’s flashier costumes on a garden gnome to be offensive.

If you’re hoping “Gnomeo & Juliet” will be a new look at Shakespeare’s tragic play that will keep scholars debating its merits for decades, then you’re going to be greatly disappointed.  It’s just a kid’s movie about garden gnomes who don’t get along because they are different colors.  While it might not interest your little ones in learning more about classic plays and literature, it might teach them a lesson about tolerance and acceptance.  Maybe the movie has more to teach audiences than I initially gave it credit for.

“Gnomeo & Juliet” gets four guitars out of five.

A comedic sequel, sci-fi action and suspense are on tap at theatres this week.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.

Big Mommas:  Like Father, Like Son--Martin Lawrence must go undercover again, this time with his teenage stepson, at an all-girls' school to catch a murderer.

I Am Number Four--A mysterious young fugitive with extraordinary powers must stay one step ahead of ruthless enemies sent to destroy him.

Unknown--Liam Neeson stars as a doctor who wakes up from a car accident to discover that another man has assumed his identity.

Stan’s Choice--Stan sees and reviews any movie currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

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