(by Dustin Putman
For a computer-animated family feature that no doubt began life as a one-line idea based on the title twist alone, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is a pleasingly clever romp that turns William Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" on its head. Adults will be consistently amused by all of the references and in-jokes to the Bard's famed works, while children will learn a little about the original play as they get swept up in the likable characters and fast-paced, heartfelt story. The film is certainly on the lightweight side, and its attempts at drama steal from the Pixar model—a flashback meant to evoke pathos is slightly harmed by the obvious way it mimics in style and choice of music similar, more effective scenes in 1999's "Toy Story 2" and 2006's "Cars"—but the outcome is still warmly entertaining. Article continues below
Living next door to each other at "2B" and "Not 2B" on Verona Drive are Miss Montague (voiced by Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson), sworn enemies whose feud extends to their, respectively, red- and blue-hatted lawn gnomes. Coming alive when the humans aren't around, the reds and blues may be separated by a fence, but that doesn't stop them from frequently blaming each other whenever their property is touched and competing in lawnmower races in the alley out back. From these two groups comes star-crossed lovers Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt), who share a meet cute while their identities are camouflaged and then must try to secretly carry on a relationship afterwards without their families finding out.
Directed by Kelly Asbury (2004's "Shrek 2") and penned by what has to be a record seven credited screenwriters—Asbury, Mark Burton (2009's "Aliens in the Attic"), Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Andy Riley, and Steve Hamilton Shaw—"Gnomeo & Juliet" is so quick-witted that multiple viewings might be in the cards for viewers who wish to pick up on all the sly gags and wordplays they missed the first time around. There are the occasional flat jokes, most of them movie references—the harkening-back to fight scenes from 1999's "The Matrix" are about a decade too late, as is another nod to 1999's "American Beauty"—but the hits come fast and assuredly. "You look like a fungi!" Juliet's frog sidekick Nanette (Ashley Jensen) flirtatiously says when she meets Gnomeo's respective friend Mushroom, whose name says it all. Later, a running joke involving an online shop selling a monster lawnmower called a Terrafirminator ("Your grass will be afraid to grow!" the ad's narrator, voiced by Hulk Hogan, growls) is also very funny. Further comic relief that actually comes off as natural rather than forced arrives in the form of the hair-brained Fawn (Ozzy Osbourne) and a hyperactive Spanish flamingo named Featherstone (a standout Jim Cummings).
At the onset, "Gnomeo and Juliet" threatens to have a creepy undercurrent, if for no reason than because the idea of live garden gnomes is a tad disconcerting (there was even a tale about this in the little-seen 1983 horror anthology "Screamtime"). Adding realism to a fantasy story is the proper use of sound effects to portray characters made of hard ceramic who make a very specific, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound every time they knock into each other or walk on cement surfaces. Pretty soon, though, Gnomeo, Juliet, and the rest of the memorable ensemble have successfully ingratiated themselves to viewers, and the chain of events the movie goes down are largely daring (including acknowledgment of the Shakespeare version culminating in a double suicide) before the cop-out happy ending sets in. There also is a delicate, but not easily missed, comment on race relations going on beneath the fun. "I'm a red and he's a blue," Juliet says at one point to flamingo Featherstone, who knows a thing or two from his past about being torn apart from his soul mate. "And I'm a pink," Featherstone replies. "Who cares?"
Stocked with a collection of Elton John songs, some classic, some original, and others used as score, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is catchy and rapidly paced without becoming chaotic. James McAvoy (2008's "Wanted") and Emily Blunt (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") are a plucky pair as the leads, their voices just right as energetic, relatable protagonists who deserve each other and, by extension, happiness. Thus, the upbeat conclusion isn't disappointing so much as it is lazier in its conventionality than what has come before; there could have been plenty of other ways to keep Gnomeo and Juliet together while still skewering the tragic end of its source material. Kids, of course, won't notice, and older audiences will just appreciate that they're being amiably diverted without wanting to rip their eyes out. If they're seeing it in 3-D-equipped theater, however, the same cannot be promised about the bulky glasses they'll have to wear. "Gnomeo & Juliet" is guaranteed to look a lot better in two dimensions and on high-def Blu-Ray.Special Note:
Like nearly every animated feature that has been released in the last year, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is arriving in most theaters in a substandard, unnecessary 3-D version. This format, lower in quality but inexplicably premium-priced, naturally cuts down a film's brightness level, oftentimes transforming a colorful image into a duller one that is altogether less vibrant. I Hate 3-DWith "Gnomeo & Juliet," the 3-D proves to be an even greater hindrance, not only darkening what could have been a remarkably beautiful visual feast, but also fading the finer details of the animation. The sheen of the characters—lawn gnomes—as light shines and retracts off their painted ceramic is rendered barely noticeable the second the audience puts on their 3-D glasses. This does a particular disservice to the artists who no doubt worked tirelessly on all facets of the picture's animation, and is also offensive in providing viewers with a downgraded theatrical presentation while requiring them to shell out an extra four or five dollars per ticket. The sooner audiences stop supporting this inferior, money-grubbing 3-D fad, the faster the message will be sent to Hollywood studios that consumers have caught on to their ways and are tired of being taken advantage of.