We begin our tale with a red curtain and wooden stage below it, with a high-pitched talking garden gnome with an extremely pointy red hat reciting from a scroll: “Two households, both alike in dignity in fair Verona”, then he gets a squad behind him trying to get him off so the real visual movie can start. I’m not quite sure what the feud between Ms. Montague and Mr. Capulet actually was, but it’s made those two neighbours loathe one another like a cat and Niagara Falls. The gnomes, which come alive whenever the humans are away at work or asleep, have developed that same feud. Maybe it’s the rivalry between lawn races, where the mowers are the actual racecars. Juliet, played by Emily Blunt, is a Capulet (obviously) and the Capulets wear red. She is to one day rule over the garden alongside her friend and caterer Nanette (Ashley Jensen), but that means no time to do what she wants and an arranged marriage. To prove herself, she feels if she can get this orchid from atop this very high greenhouse, it could prove to her father (Michael Caine) that she’s “not delicate!”. Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a Montague, and they always wear blue. He’s upset that the red Tybalt (Jason Statham) beat him brutally in the last lawn race, and he feels if he can get the orchid, which is in Capulet territory and beloved by them, he can exact revenge. Gnomeo and Juliet end up crossing paths as they reach for the flower at the same time, both in disguise. When they later realize not only do they have a serious crush on one another but that they’re from opposing families, they all of a sudden feel maybe the feud is unwarranted. That maybe because of all the fun they had in the greenhouse that day, and their feelings for each other, maybe they can still make a relationship work. Enter the retelling that actually ends up referencing Shakespeare and his 400-year-old well-known story ideas.
Like the Toy Story movies, and some notable others like Flushed Away, the movie is good in scope, showing the perspectives of the lives of the desk-lamp sized gnomes, everything so much bigger and harder to navigate in the human world, ducking behind tight spaces and being able to admire the greenhouses, parks, and roses on a bigger scale with how much more navigation they need to take. It also does a good job of using everyday appliances cleverly differently. The animation is also very good, a little incomparable since most Pixar and Dreamworks and Blue Sky animated movies don’t tend to stay in one place like how this one focuses on the adjoining rival gardens. Usually smaller animation companies would settle for it, and they wouldn’t usually have the capacity to highlight as many details as this one. The grass, especially when it gets mowed down in lawnmower races, looks perfect. As do the actual dried-and-polished clay textures in the character models, and the pretty backyard scenery that’s a lot more fun to look at than if it were live-action.
Now for the star-crossed doomsday-predicated romance. Romeo & Juliet being the greatest love story ever told is debatable in this age. Despite the unforgettable tenderness of “Juliet and her Romeo” both willing to deceive their families and leave their entire lives behind just to be with each other...it’s hard to get away from the fact their first kiss was after knowing each other for three minutes. But I think the unavoidable shred of insta-love in this movie works fine for a few reasons. One is they first have an amusing game, playing tug-of-war on an orchid and partially flirting...basically, nothing too brash or overly hands-on, making it seem like they’re testing boundaries. Second is how when their first real date approaches, both of them show equal fright and equally do their best to look great and feel ready. In my opinion, the sweetest of relationships are those where the feelings are equally requited. Third is that when they end up fighting over something, and Featherstone ends up showing distress about something, they put it to the side to help him. Basically, they have the qualities of a healthy couple, sending good vibes for children later down the road.
Though I wouldn’t say this film is very fast-paced, there are also a few notable moments that keep us thinking about it. The fact that Lady Blueburry (the one and only Professor McGonagall, Maggie Smith) surprisingly lets her son infiltrate the red backyard, was, well, surprising, and nice to think about if you don’t think about how she doesn’t demand any safety precautions before going to do it. Tybalt shattering is, while unsurprising for anyone who read the play in high school, will definitely surprise kids and maybe make them think about other types of feuds between groups and how they’re implemented. The Elton-John donated-and-performed musical numbers are very well performed, especially “Hello Hello”, and the voice actors make their characters and the movie a little more snappy. McAvoy, Blunt, Smith and Jensen are the definitive stars, and we know Jensen will in the two funny English-Japanese translations. McAvoy and Jensen would later star in Arthur Christmas together, and they both carried so much of that movie as well. They're a good team.
Some of the jokes, however, are a bit distasteful. The “kick some grass” joke seemed to go only for shock and just felt crass-bleh. A joke about Paris being okay when something crumbles and everyone a little disappointed it wasn’t someone else was something Paris didn’t deserve. I kind of wish in the end fight that there was more hands-on fighting between the blues and reds, which would’ve given more gravitational drive, instead of the monster lawnmower doing most of the work. Also, I’m not a big fan of animated films having musical numbers to wrap them up. Sometimes they work (the first Shrek and Strange Magic were great to me) but this one felt so optimistic that the Blues and Reds just seemed to give up every difference with the snap of a finger once Gnomeo and Juliet were okay. And as I’m typing this, maybe that’s the point, and maybe this musical number takes place a little while later after the climax, considering the garden looks repaired from the battle. I just felt the film could’ve ended with something more tender, more poetic than that, since the original play was a devastating tragedy story.
Still, the music is nice, the animators and voice actors both clearly worked hard, and Gnomeo and Juliet make a very exemplary couple for a very big base of viewers. Now if only we got the last of that in Sherlock Gnomes.