*. Shakespeare for the kids. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s something that has a history going back at least as far as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807).
*. And Romeo and Juliet has always had a special appeal for young people. This makes a kind of sense since Juliet is only 13. Kids can relate. It’s a story of puppy love and youth culture, as is evident in film adaptations running from West Side Story, through Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, up to the punkish Romeo + Juliet and Tromeo and Juliet (both 1996). So . . . why not aim for an even younger audience?
*. A tiny garden gnome comes on stage to tell us that “The story you are about to see has been told before. A lot.” Then, midway through Shakespeare’s prologue, he gets the hook. Or is dumped through a trap door. Enough of that stuff. On to a backyard world where various lawn ornaments have taken on a life of their own and are re-enacting the old story for a new generation.
*. There’s not a lot of Shakespeare left, aside from the basic premise. In fact, that even becomes part of the storyline when Gnomeo (James McAvoy) meets up with the Bard himself (Patrick Stewart) and get into an argument over whether there should be a happy ending. Shakespeare holds out for tragedy, as Romeo and Juliet was designated in the First Folio, but Gnomeo, for obvious reasons, wants to turn it into a comedy, complete with a dance and multiple weddings at the end, where every Jack gets his Jill.
*. I came into this one with a lot of reservations, but overall I think the adaptation is handled very well. For the most part the story is re-jigged in dramatically satisfactory ways. This isn’t Shakespeare, but what it is works very well. The cast is star-struck, with McAvoy and Emily Blunt in the leads, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as the respective heads of the red and blue gnome factions, Jason Statham as Tybalt, and cameos from the aforementioned Patrick Stewart, as well as Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton, and Hulk Hogan. The music, a mix of classics and original songs, comes from Elton John, who was also executive producer. I’m afraid most of it doesn’t go very well with the rest of the movie. It’s not bad, but it just took me out of the movie and made me wonder why I was listening to “Crocodile Rock.”
*. As the classics come down to a younger demographic, movies for kids move up. The resulting no-grown-ups-land is sometimes referred to as “kidult,” and it’s something I despise. That said, I don’t think there’s that much of the knowing adult humour winkingly slipped in that defines this genre. This kind of thing really took off with the success of Toy Story and various Pixar movies that were “made for kids, but that parents will love too!” (Since then, kidult has gotten even dumber, to the point where it’s just assumed that parents like exactly the same things as their eight-year-old children.)
*. Sure there are some nods to the canon and some pop culture asides, but nothing like the usual fare for animated kidult movies of this period. I never got annoyed at the self-referential points being scored. I took it as a movie for kids and just enjoyed it as such.
*. There are other conventions that are becoming more tiring. Juliet is a feisty girl who resists being labeled “delicate” and being kept on a pedestal. She’s just as much into the rough and tumble stuff as Gnomeo. So there’s the “girl power” box checked. Which isn’t bad, but like I say, is tiring when it is a point made in such an obvious way.
*. A less politically correct convention is that of presenting comic supporting characters as ethnic subtypes. Think of Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots, the Latin feline lover. Or, to borrow another animated creation, the Rastafarian Jar Jar Binks. In this movie Juliet’s Nurse has become a frog named Nanette, played with a broad Scottish accent by Ashley Jensen, while the Friar Laurence character is a pink flamingo named Featherstone with a thick Spanish accent (voiced by Jim Cummings). I’m not politically offended by these stereotypes, but they are clichés and you’d think that with a team of seven (!) credited screenwriters they could have come up with something more original.
*. I don’t talk about many children’s movies here because I’m not the target audience. I think Gnomeo and Juliet would probably appeal to kids though, and its box office success reflects that. (The attempt to turn the gnomes into a franchise with a sequel, Sherlock Gnomes, didn’t meet with as welcome a reception.) As an adult, I found it visually bright and sporadically amusing. As with a lot of cartoons, things didn’t hold together that well. Continuity is more something we look for in live-action. Animation tends to just introduce us to one thing and then another. Suggesting that making sense isn’t something we need to, or even should, think about too much.