Wherefore art thou, humor?

Shakespeare with a gnome twist: British retelling ekes out barely enough jokes, heartfelt moments

February 11, 2011 

"Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny ..."

And at about this point, the gnome reciting the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet” is yanked off stage by a big Bugs Bunny hook. For this is no epic tale of woe, this romance of Juliet and her Gnomeo. Even if “the story you are about to see has been told before. A lot.” You’ve never seen it like this.

“Gnomeo & Juliet” is a daft and generally deft British animated retelling of the star-crossed romance set in adjacent English backyard gardens and set to the music of Elton John (he and his Rocket Films produced it). And if it’s not an unerringly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, it still manages enough wit and charm.

Lady Bluebury (the voice of Maggie Smith) keeps her blue gnomes on her side of the garden fence. But Gnomeo (James McAvoy) would rather be racing lawnmowers and chasing girls. Girl gnomes.

The blue gnomes have long hated the red gnomes. Lord Redbrick (the voice of Michael Caine) has his daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt) up on a pedestal – literally – and sputters malapropisms any time she fancies coming down to hang with the lads.

“What is the meaning of all this constipation?”

The hotheaded Tybalt (Jason Statham, perfect) is the one who stirs things up the most. He cheats in the lawnmower races and treats everything as a blood sport. Except there is no blood. When gnomes die, they’re shattered. Literally.

Then Gnomeo spies fair Juliet, and you adults know the rest. Gnomeo is smitten, and Juliet? “Because I’m Red, I’m feelin’ blue.”

Other voices include Ozzy Osbourne, Julie Walters and Hulk Hogan. In this version of the romance, a goofy lovesick plastic flamingo (Jim Cummings) is the friar, that one person sympathetic to star-crossed lovers. The funny sidekicks aren’t funny enough, save for the porcelain frog, Nannette (Ashley Jensen), who fills the role of Juliet’s nurse.

“A Red and a Blue, it just can’t be. It’s DOOMED. That’s the best kind of romance!”

There is no Mercutio. But there is a Benvolio. Gnomeo’s cousin is named “Bennie,” as in “Bennie and the Jets.” That works because quite often, Elton John’s music – either the original “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” or an orchestration of it – slips in.

Kids will get a kick out of the gnome-fu fighting and lawnmower racing and such. And adults will grin at the bulldog, chased out of the yard with “Out! OUT damned Spot!” Patrick Stewart voices a certain famous playwright as a statue in a nearby park, a moving company is named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Director and co-writer Kelly Asbury (“Shrek 2”) finds a few jokes and a few moments of heart, just enough to lift “Gnomeo” above most recent animated B-movies. But it’s a pity he didn’t err on the side of Shakespeare and not of “Shrek.” The pathos and wit of the Bard bests the sight-gags and one-liners of the Big Green Ogre every time.

GNOMEO & JULIET

* * 1/2 * *

Cast: Voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Jason Statham, Ozzy Osbourne

Director: Kelly Asbury

Running time: 1:22

Rating: G

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