"Gnomeo & Juliet" retells the Shakespearean classic. (Touchstone Pictures )
What's in a name, after all? Would "Gnomeo & Juliet" — that's right, "Gnomeo & Juliet" — be the surprise of the season if it had a title that wasn't quite so silly? Or is the wackiness of the concept the reason this gently amusing, genuinely sweet animated film makes you smile from start to finish?
Admittedly, the eccentric idea of retelling Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" with red and blue British garden gnomes as the feuding families takes a bit of getting used to and a lot of nerve to pull off. The film acknowledges as much with an opening featuring a tiny gnome in an enormous hat reading a ferociously deadpan prologue: "The story you are about to see has been told before. A lot. Now we're going to tell it again. But different."
Different means not only foregrounding garden gnomes, it means giving prominent roles to a lovelorn pink flamingo and a gossipy frog and convincing Shakespeare himself (voiced by Patrick Stewart as a statue come to life) that his tragic finale just might benefit from a family-friendly updating to G-rated happiness.
Stewart is not the only notable name attracted to the playful, off-center humor of this film, directed by "Shrek 2's" Kelly Asbury and, against all logic, put together by no fewer than nine credited writers (the team of Rob Sprackling and John Smith had the original idea) over an 11-year span.
James McAvoy and Emily Blunt voice the star-crossed lovers and Maggie Smith and Michael Caine their feuding parents, but it doesn't end there. Ideally cast is a supporting team that includes Jason Statham, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton. That's a group that doesn't get together every day.
Different also means a generous helping of the songs of Bernie Taupin and Elton John (whose production company, Rocket Pictures, originated the project). The soundtrack makes use of standards like "Crocodile Rock," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" as well as new numbers written especially for this film.
The setting is not ancient Verona but Verona Drive in today's Stratford-upon-Avon, which allows for Shakespearean visual touches like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Movers and Tempest Teapots. While neighbors Miss Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) dislike each other, the heavy lifting in their feud is done by their dueling gnomes.
For it's the conceit of "Gnomeo & Juliet" that gnomes have a secret life. Though they freeze in place whenever humans appear, they are active and animated when flesh and blood individuals aren't around. They tend to their owners' gardens and, in a playful reference to "Rebel Without a Cause," engage in lawn mower drag races, with the Natalie Wood starter role going to Dolly Gnome (Ms. Parton herself).
That "Rebel" moment is not "Gnomeo's" only cinema reference. Amused film fans will notice nods to Hong Kong martial arts extravaganzas, "The Godfather," "Topkapi" and maybe even "Rambo." And then there is the Terrafirminator, "a weapon of grass destruction" so powerful "your lawn will be afraid to grow." Really.
Mostly, however, "Gnomeo" is interested in mimicking the Shakespeare plot without taking anything too seriously. So if Gnomeo is the pride of the blues, it's the loutish Tybalt (tough-guy actor Statham) who does the honors for the reds.
As in the play, Gnomeo and Juliet meet without knowing they are from rival families. Once they discover the truth, it is too late, they are already in love, news greeted with morbid delight by Juliet's nurse, a frog with a Scottish accent named Nanette (Ashley Jensen) who all but squeals "it's a doomed love, that's the best kind! How romantically tragic!"
More helpful is Featherstone the plastic flamingo with a heavy Cuban accent (Jim Cummings). Completely uninterested in these color wars ("I'm pink, who cares"), Featherstone, like his "Gnomeo & Juliet" costars, is a force for love, innocence and old-fashioned fun.
Playful, inventive and endearing, this 84-minute epic is smart enough not to overstay its welcome as it steers clear of the fatuous and the formulaic. As Shakespeare himself might have put it, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. Even if it took a pack of gnomes to make it happen.
'Gnomeo and Juliet'
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: In general release