Only last week I wondered why Baz Luhrmann hadn’t thought to include yard ornaments in his radical Romeo + Juliet (1996). Well, between half-past noon and 2 o’clock on Friday, I came to understand perfectly, if not painlessly. I don’t even think the leads in this film are garden gnomes. I actually own some garden gnomes—assuming this movie hasn’t caused them to crawl away to die of embarrassment—and they are far more dignified than these shabby imposters. The only thing that keeps me from truly tearing into Gnomeo & Juliet is the fact that I watched Just Go with It immediately afterward.
Discounting William Shakespeare (who shows up here as a statue of himself with Patrick Stewart’s voice) and the two guys who wrote an earlier screenplay (you mean this improves that?), it took seven writers to come up with the script for this. In a way, that’s not surprising. No one person could come up with this many lame gags and awful puns (and I am not against puns on general principle). What you have here is exactly what the film promises—a really dumb version of Romeo and Juliet, now with a happy ending and aimed at kids. On that basis, you might wonder about the inclusion of a Brokeback Mountain gag and a soundtrack mostly comprised of songs from Grandad’s old Elton John records. Well, that I guess is meant to make the film tolerable to viewers who have graduated from drinking from Tommee Tippee cups.
If you must know, the story follows Gnomeo (James McAvoy), the darling of Blue Gnome matriarch Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), who meets Juliet (Emily Blunt), daughter of the patriarchal Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and is immediately smitten. Since both are in disguise—she’s dressed as a ninja gnome (don’t ask)—they don’t realize they’re from opposite sides of a long-standing backyard feud between the Blues and the Reds. (If you’re looking for red state/blue state political subtext, forget it now.) Exposure, of course, leads to outrage on both parts, which actually—and unintentionally—leads to one of the funnier things in the film, since Gnomeo’s occasional outbursts of “You’re a red!” sound like commie-baiting.
The path of true love may not run smoothly, but it certainly runs predictably as the lovers find themselves at the center of the long-running feud. The idea appears to be that locating the antics at the addresses of 2B and Not 2B on Verona Lane is actually witty. And if that doesn’t convulse you, don’t worry: There’s more—a lot more—on the way. Festooning all this with Elton John songs (I really had no need to hear “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” with a chorus of “Gnomeo, Gnomeo, Gnomeo” replacing “Saturday Saturday, Saturday”) and expensive guest voice actors doesn’t change much. And copying—really cheaply—the musical finale of Shrek (2001), but with Elton’s “Crocodile Rock,” of course, just seems desperate.
OK, it’s not exactly unwatchable. And the 84-minute running time is merciful. I do seem to remember chuckling at something, though I can’t remember what it was. I mostly remember groaning at each new gag or pun and occasionally wondering if the chattering small child down near the front was enjoying himself. Oh, and I did often check my phone to see how much longer, so I could offer encouragement to my hapless companion—without reminding him that Adam Sandler lay in our future. Rated G.