What’s in a gnome?
Shakespeare’s tragic romance about the children of warring families has been adapted countless times (a high point: “West Side Story;” a low point: a recent Twitter version), as acknowledged in a cheeky opening monologue to this charming retelling set in the world of garden gnomes and set to the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
Adjoining homes on Verona Drive have lovingly tended gardens, one with a blue color scheme, the other red. Both are populated with ceramic garden gnomes who come to life when humans are not around and like their owners, the two groups are in a bitter feud, led by Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine).
When Lady Bluebury’s son Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy) and his red rival Tybalt (voice of Jason Statham) compete in a lawnmower race, the hotheaded Tybalt cheats to win. Gnomeo decides to cross over into the red side for revenge.
Meanwhile, Lord Redbrick’s daughter Juliet (voice of Emily Blunt) defies her father to disguise herself and cross over to the blue territory to capture a captivating flower. She meets Gnomeo and soon parting will be sweet sorrow and a weed by any other name is still a weed.
They have one perfect date far from home, where they befriend another garden fixture, a long-abandoned plastic pink flamingo (voice of Jim Cummings), and hear his story of the pain of lost love.
Gnomeo and Juliet want to be together, but they do not want to hurt their parents. Lord Redbrick wants Juliet to marry the suitable but dull Paris (voice of Stephen Merchant). Tensions become even more heated between the reds and the blues, especially when one side brings in a monster truck of a lawnmower called the Terrafirminator. Even William Shakespeare’s statue (voice of Patrick Stewart) tries to explain that the story is not supposed to have a happy ending.
But Shakespeare didn’t know about garden gnomes, 3D computer animation, or G ratings, all of which combine to make sure that all’s well that ends well.
The gnomes are nicely weathered-looking, with chips and cracks, and there’s an evocatively gentle ceramic clink when they move or touch each other.
There’s plenty of silly but warm-hearted humor as the characters struggle with the big feelings inside their brittle terra-cotta bodies. Juliet frees a little ceramic fish from a gnome’s fishing pole, and he manages quick grateful appreciation before he sinks straight to the bottom of the pond. The gnomes have to freeze whenever a human comes by, in positions only slightly more absurd than the ones they were originally designed for.
Pop culture references, unavoidable these days in an animated film, are oddly chosen (The “Tiki Room” theme song? “Brokeback Mountain?” Really?) but thankfully brief. And there is much to delight lovers of English literature, with sly references to the bard. We see like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moving van and the street address numbers are 2B and not 2B.
The eclectic voice cast works very well. McAvoy and Blunt show all the tenderness, courage, and spirit one could hope for in the young lovers. It is disarming to see how well Ozzie Osborne’s Fawn and Hulk Hogan’s Terrraforminator announcer share the screen with Dame Maggie and Sir Michael.
But what makes the film most endearing is its unabashed eccentricity. These days, so much entertainment is focus-grouped into safe institutional blandness. It is a rare pleasure to see a film, especially one with eight credited authors including William Shakespeare, with such a singularly loopy sensibility. If you are in the mood for an off-beat take on a classic love story to the sound of the Rocket Man, you will find this one is just as you like it.
Parents should know that there is some mild peril with apparent shattering of some characters, though by the final credit sequence we see that everyone is back together. There is a brief glimpse of a ceramic figure wearing a thong, some mild schoolyard language, and a sad story about a couple breaking up and the impact on others.
Family discussion: Why couldn’t the red and blue gnomes get along with each other? What was the most important lesson Gnomeo and Juliet learned from Featherstone? Which decorations would you like to have in your garden?
If you like this, try: Middle schoolers and up will appreciate some of the many other versions of the story including the excellent films by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann and the musical “West Side Story.”