Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: "Gnomeo & Juliet"

Tolerable but forgettable, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is a halfway clever idea executed with minimal effort and ingenuity. In its (allegedly) humorous take on the classic play about star-crossed lovers, the film continuously reaches for the lowest-hanging fruit -- in its jokes, in its animation style and its brazen, narrow appeal to tykes.

Right from the start we're instructed that this is a movie with little patience for complexity. A gnome begins reading the introduction of "Romeo and Juliet," but is banished from the stage for his "long and boring prologue."

The hook is that the entire cast is gnomes -- not the mythical creatures, but garden gnomes. Cutesy to some and horrifying to others, these little ceramic cherub-cheeked critters are like a cross between hobbits and dwarves.

(They also, now that I think about it, bear a startling resemblance to Smurfs, who are getting their own movie soon.)

Not even bothering to hide how much they've lifted from "Toy Story," the gnomes come alive only when humans are not around, but suddenly revert to their statuesque forms if interrupted in their doings.

Interestingly, though they seem to have all the flesh-and-blood urges of people, they're still made of clay or whatever, and shatter if they fall or are struck. All of the older gnomes are chipped and faded, and even young rascal Gnomeo (voice by James McAvoy) has a scratched eyebrow and cheek from getting into so many (literal) scrapes.

The warring clans are the Red and Blue gnomes, marked by their pointed hats and/or clothing, who belong to elaborate gardens nestled side-by-side in a British duplex owned by neighbors who despise each other. (Their addresses are "2B" and a crossed-out "2B," in one of a few funny throwaway puns.)

The gnomes carry on that hostility, led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith). Various contests and sorties into enemy territory keep things going, with lawn mower racing being a big thing, and vandalizing the others' flowers and cheesy garden decorations.

Gnomeo, the son of Bluebury, falls for Juliet (Emily Blunt), Redbrick's only child, but of course their love is doomed. Eventually, their romance will overpower the hatred between the Reds and the Blues. I don't think I'm giving away much by saying that this ending is decidedly less tragic -- and G-rated -- than the play.

A few of the supporting characters breathe a little life into the stale proceedings. Juliet has a right-hand-woman, Nanette (Ashley Jensen), a frog statue who dispenses water and flighty advice. Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is an abandoned plastic pink flamingo, who's a bit dazed after 20 years of solitude but has a poignant story to tell.

Director Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2") seems content to pitch things at about kindergarten level, with a sparse layering of in-jokes to keep parents minimally involved. Elton John is an executive producer, and provides some of his classic songs, plus a few new ones.

"Gnomeo & Juliet" sets some kind of notorious new record for screenwriting-by-committee, with no less than nine people receiving a writing credit -- 10, if you throw in Bill Shakespeare.

2 stars out of four

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