Gnomeo & Juliet
You might think that there’s no way young kids would be interested in Shakespeare plays, but Elton John has found a way to get their attention. By taking out all the sex and suicide, putting in a mix of two catchy new songs amid an array of his all-time greatest hits, and updating the story to focus on star-crossed lovers from warring teams of garden gnomes in modern-day Stratford-upon-Avon, he (as executive producer) has led a team of cutting-edge animators to create the 3D film Gnomeo & Juliet. The result is a fun-filled romp that should entertain adults just as much as their children.
The story focuses on the garden gnomes found in two neighboring yards, who are distinguished respectively by their red and blue outfits. Each side has been at war with the other for as long as they remember, largely due to the fact that their human owners hate each other.
Amid the intricate worlds of each garden—which are laid out in snappy musical montages—are the two title characters, who each wonder why their side has to hate the other. They meet in cute fashion and start a secret romance, and just like in the original Romeo & Juliet things go awry when they are caught together, leading to a series of seemingly tragic events.
The key word here, in this G-rated rendition of the tale, is “seemingly.” For in keeping with the need to protect young minds while ultimately using the storyline to teach a message of tolerance in an entertaining rather than heavy-handed fashion, Elton John and his talented team reinvent the play’s third act to create a much happier outcome than the original. While this might upset particularly uptight purists, for most this will mean that the storyline has not only been rendered with more innocence, but with a sense of the unexpected as well.
The film is packed with amusing references to John’s musical career, including a hilarious moment in which a gnome named Benny dances on a computer keyboard while it inadvertently blasts out the opening keyboard riff from “Bennie and the Jets” and another gnome’s twisted take on “Your Song” to describe his nasty cold. Director Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) also handles the frequent action scenes with just the right blend of mischief and danger, while also subtly wringing tears with a sad montage that details the way a lawn flamingo lost his greatest love in a gripping new John ballad called “Love Builds a Garden“ that ranks with his finest tunes.
As the lead voices, James McAvoy (Wanted) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) do a fine job, but it’s the rest of the film’s voice actors who add a surprisingly clever aspect to the film. The vocal cast ranges from Oscar-quality actors like Michael Caine and Maggie Smith to Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton, with Parton‘s quick part especially delightful.
Beyond that, the film will also interest adults through the seemingly political symbolism of the war between red- and blue-colored forces. While the frequent references to their colors might seem to be a metaphor for the red state-blue state political divide in America, it is in fact an incredibly prescient coincidence, as Elton John conceived of the film’s concept more than a decade ago—but it still adds a fun extra level to consider in the story.
But in hearing a song like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” as the rocking soundtrack to a drag race between gnomes riding lawnmowers, or “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” used in a zippy romantic montage, the film becomes so purely enjoyable that one can only wonder why it took so long for rock songs to perfectly fit an animated film and whether there are other stars whose catalogs can do the honors for other cartoons. One can only hope that Billy Joel or The Beatles won’t be far behind.