Since the turn of the old century in film, the tragic tale of the two star-crossed lovers has certainly been revived and refurbished enough times to a considerable point of exhaustion. As it began, the original theatre production was first adapted to fit the projector screen in the year 1936, and was from that point forward recreated nearly every ten years. Seventy-five years later, Hollywood is going at it once again. Only this time, it is to be a children’s picture.
Gnomio & Juliet tells the tale of a predictable set of young lovers: Gnomeo, a blue-dressed garden gnome living in Ms. Mantague’s backyard; and Juliet, a red-dressed garden gnome living in Mr. Capulet’s backyard. The film was good fun in passing, but, not to much surprise, it lacks originality as well as any form of expansion upon the original version. Is this to be expected? Of course. Should we hold this against the film? Perhaps, but if we do so we best make sure that we attribute each fault justly. We cannot go ahead and compare it to West Side Story, can we? After all, the film is called Gnomeo & Juliet. The film at least adequately translates the elevated themes of the original story to a context by which younger audiences can be entertained and enlightened at the same time.
The biggest problem with the film stems from the numerous flaws in the writing. The characterizations and situations imposed here, for example, are designed for the sake of viewer convenience. Gnomeo is no longer a bystander to the inter-family feud, but instead is a leader of the movement against the Capulets. An early scene shows our hero competing in a dangerous lawn mower race against the ill-tempered red gnome, Tybalt.
Gnomeo continues to act rashly violent and vindictive in a way that exceeds the original characterization. I can only attribute this to Hollywood’s unfortunately recurring incentive to accommodate roles for the actors, rather than have the actors accommodate themselves for the role. Likewise, Juliet is portrayed as adventurous and rebellious from the outset – a characteristic that is only supposed to emerge well into her relationship with the Romeo character.
The plot also follows a self-contradictory and, at times, choppy narrative. For example, the first half of the film explicitly portrays Tybalt as the villain of the story, and then afterwards the role of the villain shifts to the very fate that conventional wisdom will tell us the film is heading toward. Fate, in the later portions of the film, is personified through a park statue of William Shakespeare, who claims that he knows the ending of the gnomes’ conflict. From here (and this is very near the end of the film), the story breaks from its preceding half and continues as a competition against an alleged destiny. This shift of direction damages the narrative fluency and makes the film less focused and half-baked.
There are, however, redeeming qualities to the film. From the opening scene, for example, a curious little gnome stands in front of a set of draped red curtains, speaking directly to the audience from what looks to be a classical theatre stage. The gnome proceeds in telling us that the following picture will be yet another interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, only that this time, it will be told differently. He pulls out a long script that he is apparently obligated to recite when suddenly he comically falls through a trap door and effectively sets the story into motion.
This is the most common sort of slapstick humor sprinkled throughout the movie. In fact, it is one of the story’s important elements that keep the audience on edge and interested. One particular scene involving a television advertisement for a super-powered lawn mower actually made me laugh out loud in the theatre. That was a standalone incident, though; the rest of the humor intends either to lighten the tragedy embedded in the ill-fated tale, or to target laughter in the more susceptible children in the audience.
I believe the film aims to follow in the footsteps of new-age animations such as Shrek and Finding Nemo by integrating some situational and dialogue-based humor that are clearly above a certain maturity level, but are fortunately beyond interpretation for the younger ear. A rather flirtatious frog, who served as a sort of hybrid between prophet and matchmaker in the film, speaks rather subliminally through such edgy dialogue such as “you got junk in the trunk,” “Yes—nuts, nuts the size of boulders,” and “is hit hat…big… and pointy?” Additionally, I recall a Montague gnome expressing how much he enjoys going “commando.”
For what it’s worth, Gnomeo & Juliet is an effective children’s movie that translates the skeleton of Shakespeare’s play to a level on which younger audiences can actually relate to the characters and enjoy the conflicts beset before them. It is no cinema piece. It is no Shakespeare. It is merely entertainment.