Even by animated filmmaking standards, “Gnomeo & Juliet” is a strange picture. Imagine William Shakespeare’s immortal classic of love and death acted out by a society of garden gnomes, scored to the music of Elton John. And the voice cast includes Hulk Hogan, Dolly Parton, Ozzy Osbourne, and Maggie Smith. Feeling a bit dizzy? While thoroughly bizarre, “Gnomeo” is a vibrant bit of cheeky entertainment, a beautifully animated romp that plays better cute than clever, offering miniature merriment and cheerful blasts of classic rock while pantsing the Bard.
As neighbors in a serene English suburb (on Verona Drive), the Capulets and the Montagues bicker endlessly, with their war carrying over to a community of backyard garden gnomes and assorted lawn decorations, as Lord Redbrick (voiced by Michael Caine) and Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith) fight to keep their families separate. Trouble brews for Gnomeo (James McAvoy), an adventurous hunk of ceramic who falls for Juliet (Emily Blunt), the stifled Redbrick princess, finding love with the daughter of his sworn enemy. Hoping to keep their relationship a secret with help from a grateful pink flamingo (Jim Cummings), Gnomeo and Juliet face an uphill battle for neighborhood peace, while bully Tybalt (Jason Statham) looks to maintain the backyard tensions.
Produced by John’s Rocket Pictures, “Gnomeo” gives off serious “Mamma Mia!” vibes, weaving a handful of the superstar’s greatest tunes (along with a few new ones) into the celebrated fabric of “Romeo and Juliet,” turning the whole shebang into an animated party to best serve the timeless music. It’s a flashy idea, agreeably executed by director Kelly Asbury (“Shrek 2,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”), who transforms Shakespeare’s breathless work into a full-blooded cartoon, gleefully maneuvering around a cast of ceramic and plastic ornaments as they live, love, and literally shatter when tragedy strikes. And here I thought Baz Luhrmann had the weirdest take on the enduring play.
While there’s a labored screenplay that’s ripe with soggy puns and tepid one-liners (a large portion of the jokes simply die), the sheer energy of the material isn’t subdued for long. Elton John’s tunes provide a suitably magical source of life for the picture, translated into orchestral arrangements or often deployed for montages, used to backdrop garden life and articulate the romantic urges between Gnomeo and Juliet. The music offers the film a distinctive thumbprint, lifting the antics with a well-portioned sense of the familiar and the new, with a few of the original songs making a warm impression.
The aural enchantment also extends to the startling cast, who, despite their diverse career backgrounds, come together to form colorful parade of voices, bettering the script with eager verbal interpretations. It’s almost worth the ticket price alone to watch Jason Statham and Ozzy Osbourne (playing a dim-witted deer) trade lines. As the titular pairing, McAvoy and Blunt make a sweet twosome, finding heart in an otherwise obsessively jokey feature. Blunt is exceptionally charismatic, showing appropriate beats of frustration as Juliet is faced with an overprotective father and her own reluctance to betray her family. There’s little dramatic heave to the film, but the actors find their footing while Asbury is off thinking up Shakespeare references (even a cameo by the man himself) and staging homages to “The Matrix” and “American Beauty” (a clue to the actual age of the script or perhaps the ridiculous length of production).
The beauty of “Gnomeo” is found in the animation, which makes a marvelous effort to sell the artificial features of the ornaments, heightening their cartoon potential. The characters look believably weathered and cracked, stiffening into cheerful pose when humans are nearby. Sound effects also assist in the fantasy, with the consistent clinking of ceramic adding a synthetic feel that brightens the comedy. The picture looks amazing at times, finding a slapstick fluidity while tending to the nuances of store-bought statues. It’s a fairly aggressive film, but “Gnomeo & Juliet” hits these little moments of detail that make the movie entertaining and creative, doing Shakespeare and Elton John justice while creating pleasing comedy chaos.