Gnomeo and Juliet is the kind of pun a kid might come up with after surviving 7th grade English class, spending 5 minutes playing with the idea before moving on to something more complex. But for some reason an entire team of filmmakers, animators, financiers and Elton John himself thought it was a good enough idea to turn into a feature film, and Disney, just as mysteriously, saw fit to bring the result into theaters. Gnomeo and Juliet isn't exactly the worst movie to ever get a theatrical release, but it is one of the most mystifying, combining Shakespeare references, slapstick and Elton John's back catalog in a way nobody ever expected or asked for.
It's one thing to make a film about gnomes, the mythical woodland creatures who populate childhood fairy tales. It's another entirely to make it about garden gnomes, ceramic figurines placed in chintzy backyards alongside plastic flamingos and wishing wells (both of them making key appearances here). This particular crew of gnomes are divided into the reds and the blues, residents of adjacent backyards in a duplex and, as you know from the original story of tragic lovers, mortal enemies. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) is the most skilled lawnmower racer of the blues-- yes, these garden gnomes race lawnmowers-- and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) the over-protected daughter of the leader of the reds (voiced by Michael Caine).
The two fall in love but can never be together, tensions heat up between the clans when Gnomeo accidentally smashes Juliet's cousin Tybalt… you know where things go from there, except maybe the part where Gnomeo's best friend is renamed Benny and buys a superpowered lawnmower online. And I'd hate to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the kids won't walk out of the theater crying about how tragically Gnomeo and Juliet's love story ended.
There are a handful of good jokes that liven up the shopworn plot, from hidden Shakespeare puns ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Movers," "Tempest Teapots") to an ad for the super-powered lawnmower that dubs it the "Terrafirminator." But a lot of awful jokes cancel that out, plus uninspired animation and the almost random presence of Elton John's music. Highlights include a serenade set to "Your Song" 10 years after Moulin Rouge! put its stamp on that number, an inevitable all-cast song-and-dance number to "Crocodile Rock," and even the "Rocket Man" melody played every time a gnome goes flying through the air John is clearly an active participant in the film-- characters morph into caricatures of his classic looks in several fantasy sequences-- but nothing in the movie makes particularly good use of his music, aside from a romance scene set to the new, utterly mediocre song "Love Builds A Garden."
The logic seems to be that the bright colors and half-hearted attempts at plot will be enough to distract kids or even adults from the fact that Gnomeo & Juliet is unoriginal. But after a year that included Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon and even Tangled, even the youngest kids know better by now.