Regardless of what other people say, creativity is the lifeblood of any civilization. You think that without visionaries we’d have computers, automobiles, and toilet paper? No, we’d still be Neanderthals and trust me, wiping your ass with leaves isn’t as appealing as it sounds. Then again, that brings up the question: Where’d all the inventiveness of Hollywood go? Where’d all the energy of Tod Browning and Joseph L. Mankiewicz disappear to? The answer definitely isn’t your local cinema.
Kelly Asbury, however, plans to change all that with the wholly original Gnomeo & Juliet, which as the name suggests, is a new spin on Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo & Juliet, this time involving . . . . gnomes (plus it’s in 3D, a format that distributors have come to love, being under the false impression that our pockets vomit dollar bills). But I’m all for artistic expression, and as a writer who has experimented with wacky ideas (a couple who bury a cat on their first date, murderous Christian sheriffs, etc.), I endorse the mix of olden literature and lawn ornaments. I just don’t admire the way Asbury and his small battalion of screenwriters — Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Andy Riley, Steve Hamilton Shaw, John R. Smith, and Rob Sprackling — execute it.
Gnomeo & Juliet is bland, unbelievable (even by an animation’s standards) and humorless. The one-joke concept doesn’t work for long and the charm runs dry within the film’s first act. Unfortunately, even the voice talents of Emily Blunt (as Juliet) and James McAvoy (as Gnomeo) cannot save the ship from sinking.
Set in Verona Drive, where it’s a case of like-owner, like-ornament, two neighbors feud over their conjoined lawns, unaware as to the hijinks that occur there on a daily basis. Little do they know, but their petunias aren’t the only things thriving in the gardens, they’re also home to two rivaling gnome families — the Reds and the Blues. The former being led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) while the latter is under Lady Bluebury’s (Maggie Smith) rule. And much like their inspirations, the two cannot stand each-other. However, turmoil grows following a botched lawnmower race that makes it increasingly difficult for two star-crossed lovers — Gnomeo (of the Blues) and Juliet (of the Reds) — to continue their relationship.
But unless it’s normal for lawn decorations to fall in love at first glance (I wouldn’t know, I don’t have a garden), the relationship between the two falls flat by being much too contrived. There is little build-up to their romance, in fact, within seconds of meeting each other, they’re ready to suck face. What does Gnomeo find so attractive about Juliet? Is it her will, her finely polished face, or perhaps her assets? Furthermore, what does she see in him? Does his scruffiness have the same effect on her as a shirtless Dwayne Johnson has on human women? None of these questions are answered. In addition, neither character has any personality to begin with, making their relationship a snooze to watch. Maybe they enjoy the fact that the other is disinteresting? Who knows?
This kind of sloppy storytelling is unacceptable, especially considering that the screenplay was written by a whopping total of eight people (including Asbury). And then they have the audacity to bring Shakespeare himself (voiced by Patrick Stewart) into the picture via a scene in which a distressed Gnomeo has a conversation with a talking statue of the writer, who explains his tragic (albeit fitting) conclusion to Romeo & Juliet. Gnomeo, however, quickly discredits the idea and moments later, following some obligatory violence and solemnness, the story ends with a nice little bow attached.
And something just doesn’t strike right with adapting a story but changing the very element that made it noteworthy. Under the same principle, is it right for me to acquire the rights to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and make it pro-Communism? Can I just waltz into a major film studio, ask for the rights to Twilight, and actually make a decent film with the concept? The answer is simple: No!
So why is it okay to make Shakespeare accessible to adolescents by distilling the very fiber of its being? These poor, innocent souls might just grow old and tell their peers in college that they’ve been fans of the author since childhood when they saw Asbury’s Gnomeo & Juliet. They’d continue by saying: “The ending surely struck a chord in me . . . it was really uplifting.” And in response, their classmates would react with a face of disdain, firing back with “What the fuck is wrong with you? They both die!” And then in the end, they feel like idiots and you feel guilty for bringing your eight year old, who was high on rainbows and Coca Cola at the time, to see this monstrosity. Do we really want such disillusioned children parading around? Do you really want to feel such inescapable worthlessness when your grown child runs back into your arms and cries about the mistreatment that he’s/she’s facing in school as a result?
Besides, don’t you want your children to read?
What the film does have going on for it is its soundtrack. Done by Chris Bacon, James Newton Howard, and Elton John, the score proves that “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” fits perfectly into any situation. In fact, there are about four orchestrated versions of the song — each following the same basic chord progression but igniting different tones.
And that works, because much like Gnomeo & Juliet, the composers take something old yet respected and put a new spin on it. In that aspect, Asbury’s latest is inventive; however, it isn’t much else.