Friday, February 11, 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet: All the garden's a stage

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011) • View trailer for Gnomeo and Juliet
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Shakespeare and garden gnomes?

Surely, you think, nothing good can come from such a combination.

Keep an open mind. Timeless stories endure no matter what form they take, and that includes this hilariously bent take on Romeo and Juliet. Director Kelly Asbury and a veritable army of writers – working from a screenplay by Rob Sprackling and John Smith – fine-tuned this droll animated fantasy until it purred. The result is clever, engaging and well integrated with a score that recycles a dozen Elton John tunes (in a few cases, with whimsically modified lyrics) and tosses in a few new ones.
When Gnomeo and Juliet consider ignoring their deepening feelings because of
the silly blue/red feud that has kept their respective clans apart for years, the
much wiser Featherstone, a yard flamingo in a neighboring garden, brings the
two lovebirds back together as only he can.

I’m all about little details, and Gnomeo and Juliet is laden with amusing touches. The film is introduced by a tiny “red goon gnome” who doesn’t get too far through a voluminous text scroll before being removed from the stage; the curtain then opens on two adjacent homes – one of a blue décor, the other red – on Verona Drive. Old lady Montague lives at 2B, while cranky Mr. Capulet’s identical address has been slashed out, Ghostbusters-style (in other words, “not 2B”).

Right away, I was charmed.

Aside from their ongoing squabbling feud of unknown origin, the human characters don’t really factor into this story, which instead concerns the ceramic fixtures in their respective gardens: mostly gnomes of all sizes and shapes, but also the occasional ornamental frog, fish and toadstool. Just like the assorted stars of Toy Story, these garden creatures come to life whenever they’re not being observed; when people unexpectedly arrive on the scene, the little figures freeze back into immobility ... no matter where they might be. That, by itself, leads to very amusing consequences at times.

The animation style – different yet again from anything done by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks or Blue Sky (the Ice Age series) – is ingenious. All these figures have the worn, paint-faded, often slightly chipped appearances of weathered ceramic; they make contact with each other – whether gently or aggressively – with the easily recognized chink of porcelain bumping into porcelain. The 3-D cinematography gives them a rounded dimensionality, and we very quickly accept the notion that these figurines have their own clandestine societies.

They are limited by original design, however, and that’s also played for frequent laughs. A ceramic fish can neither float nor swim, and two gnomes who share a single ceramic base can’t ever “quit each other.”

And yes, that nod to the famous signature remark from Brokeback Mountain is typical of the occasional snarky one-liners. Although family-friendly and certain to appeal to youngsters, who’ll be enchanted by these colorful heroes and villains, the script frequently nudges and winks at adults who’ve been savvy enough to give this charmer a try.

Each yard’s gnomes mirror their respective environments. Lady Bluebury (voiced by Maggie Smith) is the matriarch of the blues; her son, Gnomeo (James McAvoy), is a cheerful good-time lad with a tall-hatted, tag-along best friend, Benny (Matt Lucas). In the adjacent yard, Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) has his hands full with a headstrong daughter, Juliet (Emily Blunt), who refuses to behave like a prim china doll. Juliet’s confidant is Nanette (Ashley Jensen), a water-spurting lawn frog.

The red society also is home to the bullying Tybalt (Jason Statham), an aggressive alpha-gnome with a cruel and vicious streak.

The reds and blues have bickered for years, mostly with respect to beautifying their respective gardens. Nobody knows the origin of the feud; it has simply become a way of life. The potential for greater catastrophe is minimized by cathartic grudge matches that take the form of lawnmower races.

Such bouts are fraught with peril. Even though these characters can be incredibly dexterous, they cannot overcome momentum, gravity or basic physics; if they drop onto a hard surface – or get smacked by an opponent wielding a sharp-edged tool – they’ll smash into bits. Death is a very real possibility.

We can anticipate the broad strokes as they occur: Gnomeo and Juliet meet in a nearby weed-choked garden, both trying to snatch a rare orchid from a dilapidated greenhouse. Young love overcomes their reflexive mutual antipathy; their budding courtship is encouraged by a lone pink lawn flamingo, Featherstone (Jim Cummings), who is beside himself with joy over having new friends, after years spent in solitude.

But this relationship can have only dire consequences. Benny, feeling betrayed by his best friend’s behavior, contemplates a rash act; Tybalt, needing little provocation anyway, sees Juliet’s transgression as an excuse to get seriously violent.

The resulting melodrama plays out quite cleverly, always allowing for the inherent limitations of these ceramic figures. Those who know the play will be prepared for some of the necessary plot developments, although you can’t assume too much; as Gnomeo complains at one point, when briefly stuck in the arms of a park statue of Shakespeare, “your ending is terrible; surely there’s a better way!”

Shakespeare is voiced by Patrick Stewart, of course; who could be better?

McAvoy delivers a stalwart hero given cause to question beliefs that have motivated his behavior for ... well, obviously for a long time. Blunt is a perky, sparkling and mischievous heroine.

Jensen’s ceramic amphibian steals the show, at least until Cummings’ Featherstone comes along; both actors make the most of their well-written parts. You’ll immediately recognize Jensen’s rich Scottish brogue from her supporting role as Christina, on TV’s Ugly Betty.

The gruff-voiced Statham is perfect as the aggressive Tybalt, who eventually transforms into a fearsome baddie. Hulk Hogan has a lot of fun as the “voice” of the Terrafirminator, a wicked, skip-loading, sharp-bladed lawnmower-on-steroids that figures in the third act. Finally, Dolly Parton pops up briefly as a Southern-fried ceramic cutie who waves the first lawnmower race to a start.

Asbury, an animation veteran whose efforts date back to various creative capacities on everything from The Little Mermaid to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Toy Story, moved into the director’s chair with Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron and Shrek 2. The latter proved a worthy training ground for this outing, and Asbury clearly understands how to pace and present the story – assisted by editor Catherine Apple – in order to maximize its appeal to all ages.

The soundtrack, as essential to this film as any character, is well employed throughout. Classic versions of “Your Song” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” appropriately complement on-screen moments, as do new Elton John/Bernie Taupin compositions such as “Hello Hello” and “Love Builds a Garden.” And we just know, given a sidekick named Benny, that another classic rocker will pop up eventually.

Despite the obvious care with which all those hands shaped this script, two plot elements are irritating. The apocalyptic climax is much too aggressively destructive, both in terms of what happens to the respective gardens, and also because this violates the delicate “co-existence” our ceramic protagonists share with the human owners of their respective houses. We can assume that these people might shrug off the occasional misplaced garden tool or lawn ornament, but the final clash goes way overboard.

Additionally, it would have been nice to include these human characters in the story’s resolution, possibly even tying them into what occurred in Featherstone’s yard. As clever as this script is, most of the time, a few obvious opportunities for parallel structure were overlooked.

These certainly aren’t fatal flaws, and the mildly sour taste prompted by the final battle royale is mitigated by an epilogue-esque, Bollywood-style dance number that allows all these delightful characters to take a final bow. Gnomeo and Juliet is a creative, clever and colorful treat: You can’t help smiling from the outset, and Asbury works hard to maintain that good will.

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