In the 3D-animated film Gnomeo & Juliet Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers is played out by dueling sets of kitschy plaster garden gnomes. If that doesn’t sound odd enough consider that the story is set to a soundtrack comprised almost exclusively of Elton John songs none of which immediately lend themselves to the work of Shakespeare or the world of lawn ornaments for that matter.
This odd incongruity extends to much of this amusing but slight film which adheres to the basic spine of the bard’s romantic tragedy but changes just about everything else including the ending which has been safely scrubbed of anything that might unduly traumatize the little ones (ie no icky double suicides). James McAvoy and Emily Blunt lend their voices to the title characters leading a cast that includes the likes of Jason Statham Michael Caine Ozzy Osbourne Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton. The characters divided into warring sets of red gnomes and blue gnomes exist according to the Toy Story Law of Anthropomorphism -- that is they only come to life when the humans are away or asleep. You will find this to be the only trait Gnomeo & Juliet has in common with the beloved Pixar franchise.
Not that it doesn’t have its moments. Gnomeo & Juliet is directed by Kelly Asbury helmer of the first two Shrek films who does his best to resolve his story’s disparate elements. When in doubt he tosses in the odd pop-culture joke a strategy that provides for the odd chuckle here and there -- though dated references to Brokeback Mountain and American Beauty inadvertently betray the film’s prolonged hibernation in development limbo at Disney.
Gnomeo & Juliet might be more enjoyable if it weren’t so conspicuously constructed as a showcase for Elton John’s music catalogue. I half-suspect Asbury would like to have done without it entirely but a glance at the credits reveals why this wasn’t an option: John is the film’s executive producer; his life partner (can we just say husband?) David Furnish its producer.
Sometimes the music is merely distracting; other times it’s excruciating. There are two new Elton John songs in Gnomeo & Juliet: “Hello Hello ” a duet with Lady Gaga; and “Love Builds a Garden.” Both of which unrepentantly scald the ears. It could have been worse: John had originally intended to debut at least five new songs but the number was mercifully reduced during production. Unfortunately a punitive remix of Crocodile Rock featuring Nelly Furtado survived to make the closing credits. I fear this one might cause stampedes with audience members vaulting toward the exit en masse to escape the horror. You might wish to leave early just in case.