I don’t know when it happened—or if it has always been so—but kids movies always have to have a singing and dancing scene. Inevitably, the fuddy-duddy-est of the characters will do the silliest dance and all the under-fives will fall over themselves laughing. I for one am waiting for the one kids movie that doesn’t require a song or a dance to get its point across. After all, life doesn’t work that way, and apparently I am a miserly old cynic who wants to strip all young children of fun in their flicks so that I don’t have to cross my arms and sigh pointedly when everyone bursts into song. So it’s probably not a surprise to you that there’s singing and dancing in Gnomeo & Juliet. Worse still, it’s Elton John—and while he’s a multi-kazillionaire and well-loved, I don’t actually enjoy his music at all. It’s fun enough for a kids movie, and the glitziness that goes alongside his work helps too (you will see glitter sunglasses, fear not), but he is executive producer and thus it seems like a blatant bit of self-promotion. If I liked Sir Elton perhaps I wouldn’t be so ranty right now—and one of my co-watchers loves him and had a dirty great smile on her face whenever his songs came on—but I don’t.
In happier news, I did quite like Gnomeo & Juliet. Aimed squarely at the kidlet market, though still pretty endearing for the old folks (read: twelve-plus), it’s a story we’ve all heard before, but perhaps not in this style. Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a rough-n-tumble ceramic garden gnome from the blue Montague house, a bit of a larrikin with a podgy gnome belly. Juliet (Emily Blunt) is held literally on a pedestal by her father over the fence in the red Capulet house. Along with the crotchety home owners, the red and the blue gnomes have been enemies for as long as anyone can remember, but when Gnomeo and Juliet bump into each other in another property across the alley, they spark a forbidden romance that causes much drama as their relationship accidentally brings neighbourhood tensions to the fore. Will it follow the same storyline, with a double suicide at the end? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say “no”, not when it’s a kids movie, though the smirking statue of Shakespeare (voiced by Patrick Stewart) at the gnomes’ local park insisted with a smirk it would end as he originally wrote it.
Frankly, gnomes just take a while to get used to. We know via the Toy Story trilogy that we can fall totally in love with otherwise inanimate objects, but watching gnomes clunk around the place, tending to their garden, repeatedly fishing for one bored fish, and so on—it’s tricky to connect with them, but you really do. The sound design is wonderful in this film, with the ceramic clacking of gnomes against themselves, each other and the environment completely spot-on and natural. They are less fragile than you’d expect but still can’t fall from great heights, and they will freeze as soon as a human is nearby into all manner of hilarious positions. I’m not sure how sold I was until Gnomeo and Juliet meet at a disused glasshouse where Juliet is hunting for the perfect flower, and the introduction of the two characters is one of the sweetest and most entertaining I have seen as the two—both in disguise—swing around the greenhouse in a nifty little action sequence. Once they fall into a pond and discover—to their mutual horror—that they are from opposing houses, their attraction doesn’t wane but things get a bit trickier when it comes to meeting up.
As in all good kids flicks, the main characters’ pals count for a lot. Gnomeo’s main man is actually a clay mushroom that, despite having no face (seriously, it’s just a mushroom) sniffs around the place like a dog and somehow makes barking noises. (What, THIS is what I can’t suspend disbelief for?) Juliet has an Irish pond frog as her helper, one who spurts jets of water out of the hose in her mouth and is happy to leap about singing, “Doooooomed!” after she discovers the dangerous romance. The most emotionally devastating character is, bizarrely, a plastic pink flamingo named Featherstone that Gnomeo and Juliet accidentally let out of a shed, who attacks everyone with love, knows no boundaries, has a strange Latin accent and, after recounting what led to him being trapped in a shed for twenty years, will make you want to bawl your eyes out and ruin your 3D glasses. (Not to mention, he’s voiced by Jim Cummings, who had a similarly devastating storyline in the substandard The Princess and the Frog. I hope his human life is much happier.) Add to that a bad guy in arrogant red gnome Tybalt—voiced, awesomely, by Jason Statham—and the ultra-competitive lawnmower fights the two groups of gnomes get into, and you’ve got yourself total entertainment.
It’s a bit cheesy, the ending is wrapped up far too quickly and with a bit of a vague hand-wave to some loose ends. There is a big stupid dance finale, if you’re bothered by such things. The 3D is absolutely fine—but underused. While it’s a good-looking movie, it’s restricted to two backyards, one neighbouring lot, and a brief foray into a park. It’s nothing that couldn’t have been done with live action, or puppets—there’s no sweeping panoramic shots, and limited action scenes, mostly lawnmower-related. I understand that the gnomes live a sheltered life, and that I’m overthinking this movie, but I’m not sure why they bothered sticking in a third dimension while keeping it so limited.
However, it’s super cute, pretty funny, and there’s lots of bright colours to keep the kids entertained. It’s not too childish for adults, and grown-ups get to play find-the-Shakespeare-in-joke—the houses are on Verona Drive, and when Juliet tries to stop a huge, drooling dog from entering her yard, she pushes a door against him yelling, “Out! Out! Damned Spot.” The computer having a banana as its logo was also a funny (though done before) touch.
In Summary: Meets Expectations. It’s all you could want from a kid’s movie—laughter, tears, and genuine desire for the couple to get together and live happily ever after with purple babies. (NB: This does not happen in the movie, but if I’d written it I would have made it happen. Maybe when I pitch my sequel to Elton at our next coffee meeting.) Gnomeo & Juliet is just plain good standard animation fare.