One wonders if the creators of Gnomeo & Juliet, an animated version of the Shakespearean tragedy of star crossed lovers, came up with the idea by tossing around variations on the original's title. Not a lot rhymes with either Romeo or Juliet. But with that obstacle cleared – let's make the rival families garden gnomes! – the next challenge would have been to make a children's version of the doomed lovers' tale that didn't end with a double suicide.
Given that the film is credited to nine (!) writers, that task is handled adequately enough which is also the best way to some up the entire enterprise. Animated films are so good these days (and not just Pixar's) that the bar is set fairly high. Gnomeo & Juliet is not in Pixar's class, animation or story wise, and perhaps closer to early Dreamworks (director Kelly Asbury made Shrek 2), but it's reasonably entertaining with enough in-jokes (Shakespearean and cinematic) to give accompanying parents a chuckle or two.
Our eponymous lovers are fixtures in the gardens of warring neighbours, Miss Montague and Mr Capulet; Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and his ilk donning blue, Juliet (Emily Blunt) and her clan painted red. There's the occasional lawnmower drag race in the back alley between Gnomeo and his red alpha gnome rival, Tybalt (Jason Statham), but it's when Gnomeo meet-cutes Juliet, by moonlight in the overgrown garden of an abandoned estate, that love takes over – it's colour blind, after all.
What ensues is more or less as Shakespeare intended, minus that tragic ending, and all to the soundtrack of classic Elton John; Crocodile Rock, Your Song and Don't Go Breaking My Heart are used to enjoyable if incongruous effect. Elton, along with partner David Furnish, is one of the film's producers, and he and Bernie Taupin have re-worked some of their old hits and written two new tracks for the film (again, for the folks, not the kids).
Sadly, the talented and diverse voice cast, which includes Maggie Smith (Gnomeo's mother), Michael Caine (Juliet's father), Ozzy Osbourne (Fawn), Matt Lucas (Benny), Dolly Parton (Dolly Gnome?!), and Julie Walters as Miss Montague, is used to little or no effect.
Best in show goes to Ashley Jensen as Nanette, a water spurting frog and lady-in-waiting to Juliet, and Featherstone, a Spanish-accented pink flamingo found by our lovers in the abandoned estate. Jim Cummings gives Featherstone enough pathos to offset his potential for irritation; this is one garden ornament who knows what it is to have loved and lost. Special mention must also be made of Hulk Hogan's appearance as the voice of an online advert for the 'mutha' of all lawnmowers, the Terrafirminator.
Gnomeo & Juliet's impressive though modest opening weekend in the U.S. ($25m) points more to the dearth of good family-friendly films than it does the quality of this one; parents have very few options to entertain the young ones at the cinema, even more so between school holidays. There will be a lot worse released in 2011 (Yogi Bear, for starters), and with most animated films slated for release being sequels (Cars and Kung Fu Panda to name but two), it may not get a whole lot better. And that may well prove to be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.