Such Sweet Sorrow, by Tyler Smith
Ah, yes. I remember movies like this.
After years of watching the brilliant offerings from Pixar and the genuinely entertaining animated films from Dreamworks, I had forgotten just how subpar many animated movies can be. Some animation studios clearly looked at the beautiful satire of Wall-E or the stunning visuals of Kung Fu Panda and decided it was time to demand more of themselves. Others, it would seem, saw the staggering box office of the last few Shrek films and said, with a shrug, “Is that all it takes? We could do that.”
Gnomeo & Juliet is a film like Robots or Happily N’ever After, which may entertain younger kids while they’re watching, but won’t have the staying power of a Finding Nemo or a How to Train Your Dragon. The story is an edgeless retread of Shakespeare’s most misinterpreted work, mixed with the “secret world” aspect of Toy Story, and topped off with the pop culture references of Shrek. All topped off with lackluster 3D that adds more to the artificiality of this world than draw us into it.
The story is simple enough. Two embittered neighbors are always competing for which one has the better garden and that competition extends to the lawn gnomes in their respective back yards. There are the gnomes with blue hats and those with the red hats. When these two factions aren’t sabotaging each other’s garden, they’re racing lawnmowers in the alley. The primary rivalry is between Gnomeo, a well-meaning blue, and Tybalt, a sneering, haughty red. The only gnome that doesn’t really buy into the whole competition is Juliet, a wide-eyed red who just loves flowers.
As expected, Gnomeo and Juliet meet and immediately fall in love. The ensuing romance is, unfortunately, treated as a sort of perfunctory afterthought. The one-on-one exchanges that are so crucial in Shakespeare’s play are here played very broad, trite, and short. It doesn’t help that the Friar Lawrence surrogate is Featherstone, a pink flamingo of questionable ethnic origin (his accent is somewhere between Borat and Ricky Ricardo). Featherstone steals the scenes that should belong squarely to our two protagonists, which is very frustrating, both because we’re expected to feel something for these two and because Featherstone is so insufferable. He’s sort of like Jar Jar Binks if he were played by Roberto Benigni.
Everything trudges along towards a predictable ending. Of course, since this is a kids movie, the film cannot stick too close to Shakespeare’s classic. Instead, it opts to end things happily. This sort of thing doesn’t bother me; after all, The Lion King did the same thing and it turned out to be a pretty solid film. The key difference here is that The Lion King earned its deviations from “Hamlet” by paying tribute to its tone and spirit. For all the silliness of Timon and Pumba, we never forget that noble Mufasa was brutally murdered by his traitorous brother. There is no escaping that sad reality, so Simba must learn to accept it and overcome it.
In Gnomeo & Juliet, the filmmakers don’t even have the balls to let Tybalt stay dead. Hey, when you’re a lawn gnome and you get smashed, there’s always superglue, right? Heaven forbid we expose children to a world where even the villains die.
As far as comedy goes, the film is mostly winking innuendos and obvious puns. Films such as Forrest Gump and Brokeback Mountain are referenced, throwing a pop culture morsel to bored parents in a way that can only be described as insulting. Other family films try to incorporate an adult audience by creating interesting characters and stories that truly everybody can enjoy. Not the case with Gnomeo & Juliet, in which Featherstone is asked about his durability and replies, “One word: plastic.” Oh, I get it. It’s like The Graduate, right? Thank you so very much, filmmakers, for allowing me to be a part of your movie. I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth now.
To be fair, the film does have a couple bright spots. There is a scene that would normally nauseatingly glib, but here is actually pretty amusing. A dejected Gnomeo discusses his situation with a statue of William Shakespeare, who finds the situation strangely familiar. One would expect in a scene like this for Shakespeare to give useful advice that encourages Gnomeo in his hour of need. Instead we get a Shakespeare that is far more enthused by the tragic possibilities of Gnomeo’s situation. His eventual prediction that it will all end in mass death is played with barely-contained glee by Patrick Stewart. It’s a scene that could have gone the more obvious route, but instead goes in a slightly more absurd direction, leading to a payoff that is genuinely satisfying.
There is also a scene that features Hulk Hogan’s voice in an ad for a lawnmower that is more doomsday machine than gardening tool. I’m a big fan of insane hyperbole, so hearing Hogan yell about showing your lawn who’s boss by essentially destroying it is very funny to me. This scene, along with Shakespeare’s apparent blood lust, betrays an undercurrent of absurdity that this film easily could have embraced. In doing so, it could have been this year’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The film doesn’t take its material seriously enough to truly engage the audience, nor does it wallow enough in the inherent absurdity of its premise to truly entertain the audience.
Instead, it hugs the middle of the road, where you’ll find lines like, “Who’s your gnomey?”
Get it? It’s like “Who’s your daddy,” but with gnomes!