Penned at the end of the 16th century and drawing heavily on two earlier works—Arthur Brooke's 1562 The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet and William Painter's 1582 The Palace of Pleasure—William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet remains the Platonic ideal of the Tragic Love Story, enchanting audiences for century after century with its twisty tale of forbidden desire, inherited prejudice, and doomed youth. Truly, after countless revivals, adaptations, and "reimaginings" on both stage and screen, it seems the Shakespeare-perfected tale of Young Love Doomed to Die has proved itself virtually inexhaustible.
This virtual inexhaustibility is put to the test by Gnomeo & Juliet, the new computer-animated film in which Shakespeare's great tragedy is reimagined as a 3-D action comedy for children, with the characters recast as garden gnomes, those painted-ceramic figurines that dot the lawns of middle-class Caucasians on both sides of the Atlantic. The driving force behind this reimagining seems to be the vowel/consonant combination shared by the word "gnome" and the first syllable of the name "Romeo." (Supplementary driving forces: ceramic garden gnomes' lack of an oppressive Disney-esque copyright, and Elton John, who serves as executive producer and provides a soundtrack of new songs and past hits rewritten to invoke gnomes.)
For the film's opening stretch, this re-imagining works cleverly, as the tent poles of Shakespeare's tragedy are assembled in a British suburb, where the dueling inhabitants of a duplex pass down their grudges and prejudices to their lawn ornaments, who spring to mischievous life when ungazed at by human eyes. Conflict mounts with the meeting of the star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the yard—Gnomeo (a charming ceramic rogue voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (a sassy ceramic lass voiced by Emily Blunt), whose foredoomed love is hilariously explicated by Juliet's nursemaid, here presented as a horny ceramic frog. (Throughout the film, the vocal talent is world-class and then some, including such notables as Academy Award–winner Maggie Smith as a garden gnome with a blue hat, Academy Award–winner Michael Caine as a garden gnome with a red hat, wrestler Hulk Hogan as a diabolical lawn mower, and rock 'n' roll cautionary tale Ozzy Osbourne as a burned-out plaster fawn.)
But before long, the hints of wit dissipate into pro forma "3-D action sequences" (if you've longed to see computer-animated gnomes ape The Matrix, here's your chance) and gnomic spins on expired catchphrases. "Who's your gnomey?" asks our boastful lothario of his rescued Juliet, leaving the audience to wonder if the reference is to the street slang of "Who's your daddy?" or the central character in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. In the end, even the preordained tragedy is averted. Due to an unfortunate touch of glaucoma, your reviewer was able to attend the Gnomeo & Juliet screening lightly high on medical marijuana, and it still wasn't much fun. Recommended only to exhaustive Shakespeare scholars and kids under 6.