How do you review a movie that you’ve been waiting four years to see? My perception is drastically screwed up, I know that. Do I review it for the Shakespeare? It won’t hold up well, we already know that. Do I ignore the Shakespeare and review it as a generic kids’ movie? We all know I can’t very well do that :).
Let’s start with the Shakespeare, then, shall we? Just how much of the story is kept? For about the first half or so, it’s not bad. There’s the blue Montagues (led by mum Lady Blueberry), and the red Capulets (led by Lord Redbrick). Gnomeo is the hero of the blue team, along with his best pal “Benny” and a dog-like Shroom as their pet. There is no Mercutio character. For the red side we have Redbrick’s daughter Juliet, literally stuck up on a pedestal by her overprotective father, and troublemaker Tybalt, who thankfully is not double cast as the love interest for Juliet (like we see in Sealed With A Kiss).
There’s the inevitable demonstration of how the blues and reds dislike each other – in this case, taking the form of a lawnmower race. There’s a meeting between Gnomeo and Juliet over a rare orchid, where they’ve both disguised themselves and therefore have no idea the others…ahem…true colors. From that point they play a bit more fast and loose with the story – there’s a duel, someone gets hurt, Paris shows up to court Juliet, Gnomeo gets banished (in a way)…blah blah blah no surprise if I tell everybody they tack on a happy ending.
In between they add some characters (Tybalt has a posse? and who is this Featherstone supposed to be?), reduce the animosity between the families to a straight-up revenge story (red attacks blue, blue retaliates and attacks red, red steps it up…) and at one point I thought they were going to take a stab at explaining the history of the feud, but instead they threw in this random other love story that had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s original.
The animation is quite good – perhaps even too good? These are garden gnomes. They are made out of cement, or plaster, or whatever it is you make a gnome out of. As such they are chipped and scratched and dirty. Nice attention to detail, but… the stars of your show are chipped and scratched and dirty. You know? There’s a musical montage that shows both Gnomeo and Juliet going through a lengthy cleaning before one of their meetings, and I thought afterward we’d see them all shiny and new – nope. Best I could tell there was no change in their appearance at all.
Like all Shakespeare-ish stories, they drop in a boatload of random Shakespeare quotes and references. At the beginning I really and truly had hope for a minute when Gnomeo comes out with “Red? I hate the word…” which I recognized as a spin on Tybalt’s like “Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.” If they’d sprinkled multiple random Romeo and Juliet quotes like that throughout the play? I would have loved it.
A couple of times they try – the “neutral ground” where Gnomeo and Juliet meet is referred to as “The Old Lawrence Place” for example. But mostly it’s made painfully clear that the writer of this particular film had little more than a high school knowledge of Shakespeare – probably about a C+ knowledge, at that. The only quotes you should expect to find are the generic ones like “To be or not to be”, “Let slip the dogs of war”, and “Out damned spot.” There’s a completely random Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reference, too. There are more quotes from other plays than from Romeo and Juliet.
It’s disappointing that they reduce the story to “revenge”. I wasn’t kidding about that writer’s C+ in English. Tybalt screams it. Lady Blueberry (Romeo’s mum) screams it. Even Benny, you know, Benvolio? The peacemaker? Yeah, picture him screaming “Revenge!!!” as he charges the Capulets. It just don’t work. I don’t mean they talk about revenge, or they act in a vengeful way – I mean that each of those characters at one point or another utters the phrase “Revenge!” We get it. You think Romeo and Juliet is a revenge story. It’s not.
As for the movie itself, if we step aside from the Shakespeare a bit, I suppose it’s…. ok. It’s almost an Elton John vanity project. His songs are sprinkled in (and he even makes a cameo) with no real rhyme or reason. They named a character Benny, for Pete’s Sake, but there’s no “Benny and the Jets.” There’s a crazy amount of celebrity voices. Dolly Parton is carted out for the same old “big boobs” joke that I thought we stopped making when Johnny Carson quit the Tonight Show. Ozzy Osborne plays the part of a deer (one of Tybalt’s posse), but for no discernible reason. He’s not a personality, he’s just a voice. Hulk Hogan does a tv commercial. It’s as if (and I’m not the first reviewer to point this out), Elton called in a bunch of connections and said “Hey, do a voice for my new cartoon.” So they each phoned in a few minutes. But they add nothing to the final product. I mean, come on – there’s LADY GAGA SONG on the soundtrack! Hasn’t anybody heard what happens when that woman releases a new song? The world goes insane. It just happened this past week. But yet here’s this tiny little animated movie where she’s singing an original song, and no buzz about that at all. They could have led with that in the marketing and gotten some traction.
A quick word on the whole “Toy Story” thing. It’s not. It doesn’t even try to be. Short of 2 or 3 silly “People coming, turn back into a statue!” scenes, the real people play no part at all in this story. If the writers could have figured out a way to put together an army of garden gnomes without any humans, I’m sure they could have done it and the movie would not have changed in the least.
The funniest part of the movie, by far, is Patrick Stewart as a statue of William Shakespeare. One of the characters actually gets into a debate with Shakespeare over the relative merits of the “doomed” ending versus the happy ending. I thought Stewart must have had an absolute ball with this one as his Shakespeare joyously taunts that the story can only end tragically:
“I suppose I could have Romeo arrive in time ….nope, nope, I much prefer the both dead version.”
My kids tell me that this was their favorite part as well. Whether it’s actually the funniest part, or if it’s just because we know our Shakespeare, who knows. But it was quite welcome.
Ok, I have to wrap this up eventually. I will give credit and acknowledge that despite their silly puns, this version did not stoop to the dreaded “wherefore” means “where” joke. Phew. HOWEVER, they did commit two cardinal sins – “Shakespeare is boring” and “Our ending is better.” I suppose I just have to grit my teeth over that for the moment, because much of the audience probably agrees. But to me, making references like that clearly says that you do not have any respect (or understanding!) of the source material, and that’s a crying shame. Go ahead and make a movie based on a Shakespeare play, but do it because you love the source material and want to pay homage, not because you actually think that you can improve it. You can’t.
Should you go see it? Sure, why not. It’s got funny bits. My kids laughed, and not just at the Shakespeare. There’s nothing especially wrong with it. I just think there was a great deal of potential that went unused. They could have kept much tighter to the story and still put a happy spin on the ending. Heck, they could have gone all meta with it, like Shakespeare in Love, and played out their own story as a parallel to the superior original, rather than doing this half-and-half job they did do.
I’m brutally torn over the whole “do we want to support projects like this?” question. I want Shakespeare stories for kids. Absolutely. But if I say to support a movie like this am I putting my vote behind cannibalizing the stories as the producers see fit? Is there any chance that the success of this movie would cause somebody to say “Hey, maybe we can make another story with even more Shakespeare in it?” That, is the question.