Wherefore art thou?

Gnomeo & Juliet

Juliet is the sun, and Gnomeo is the woodpile balance. Yeah, it’s <i>that</i> well-written.

Juliet is the sun, and Gnomeo is the woodpile balance. Yeah, it’s that well-written.

Rated 2.0

Gnomeo & Juliet gets off to a mischievously clever start, as a curtain rises and a little squirt steps out onto the 3-D “stage” to read the prologue to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (“Two households, both alike in dignity … ”), while dodging a huge hook wielded first from stage right, then stage left. The little fellow gets only as far as “civil blood makes civil hands unclean” before making his involuntary exit. It’s cute. It’s funny.

It’s over.

There’s a lot of voice talent involved in Gnomeo & Juliet, and the soundtrack is peppered with classic songs by executive producer Elton John and his longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin. The movie itself seems to want nothing more than to be sweet and pleasant and fun. It’s dispiriting, then, to find that getting through it is a pretty dreary business.

The pun in the title is the giveaway: This is Shakespeare’s tragedy enacted by computer-animated garden gnomes. Only without the tragedy—we’re spared all that unpleasant business about fatal street fights and the young lovers’ double suicides. There’s still a family feud, though, which the gnomes and other garden gewgaws carry on for their respective owners, the squabbling neighbors Miss Montague and Mr. Capulet. (Her address is “2B” while his mailbox says “2B” with a red slash through it—“2B or not 2B,” get it?)

On the Montague side is happy-go-lucky Gnomeo (voice by James McAvoy); on the other side of the fence, for Capulet, is spunky Juliet (Emily Blunt). They meet, they bond, they fall in love. They run away to “the old Lawrence place,” where a plastic lawn flamingo named Featherstone (Jim Cummings) flits around them jabbering in an outlandish Desi Arnaz accent about the joys of young love. But the pull of family loyalty drags them back, he to the side of his mother (Maggie Smith), she to her father (Michael Caine), as the war between the blue and red gnomes waxes hot.

According to reports on the Internet, Gnomeo & Juliet was the brainchild of Elton John, who sold Walt Disney Productions on the idea on the strength of their success with The Lion King and Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida. Eventually, however, Walt Disney Animation Studios chief John Lasseter scuttled the project: “Why are we making this?” he’s reported to have asked (“Wherefore art thou, Gnomeo?”), and nobody had a good answer.

So Sir Elton took it to Miramax (another Disney division), who relit the green light. Now that Miramax has been sold off by Disney, Gnomeo is being released through yet another Disney sub, Touchstone Pictures.

Confusing? Well, at the very least it appears that Gnomeo & Juliet’s development did not take place in a placid and nurturing atmosphere. If John Lasseter asked why Disney was making this picture, it was a good question, and the finished product suggests that no one ever did come up with an answer—or for that matter, ever asked it again.

It’s no surprise that the end credits are festooned with the names of no fewer than nine writers (10, if you count Shakespeare). That’s not even a committee—it’s a congress. The only time a group that big came up with a decent piece of writing was the King James Bible—and they had help.

Gnomeo & Juliet has its cute moments, but it’s the cuteness of desperation, like a little girl reciting nursery rhymes and squirming because she really needs to go to the bathroom. Characters, gags and plot turns come and go according to the whim of whatever writer was working on that page that day, then discarded without following through as the next writer’s ideas take over. The movie has flop sweat on its brow, and with reason; I’ll bet there was a sign on the studio wall: “When in doubt, squeeze in another Shakespeare in-joke.”

A final note: In the movie’s version of the balcony scene, with Juliet agonizing (“What’s in a gnome?”), Emily Blunt springs a wonderful line reading on us. As Gnomeo makes his presence known, leaping out of the darkness, her Juliet recoils in dismay and wails, “Oh my giddy aunt, did you just hear all that?” It’s the funniest, most spontaneous moment in the whole movie, and I’ll cherish it. With movies like Gnomeo & Juliet, you have to take the fun where you can find it.