Movies can never exist solely on one flawless aspect of their production. A great performance cannot compensate for shoddy direction and bad production design. Similarly, a great looking effort with amazing dialogue and flashy filmmaking can’t overcome a crap actor. Instead, amusement is a mysterious symbiosis of complementary, not competing part. In the case of Gnomeo and Juliet, Touchstone’s long gestating comedic CG take on Willy Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, there is so much to like, so many elements to drink in and adore, that when the movie’s main stumble block shows up, you’re almost reluctant to let it ruin your good time. Unfortunately, the flaw is so massive and unavoidable that, once recognized, the rest of this otherwise enjoyable piffle simply implodes.
The re-imagined narrative has lawn ornaments Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) living in separate gardens in the sunny English suburbs. Owned by Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) and Mrs. Montague (Julie Walters) respectively, their lives revolve around their friends, families, and a feud that has going on for as long as anyone can remember. Based in part on their primary coloring – blue for Gnomeo, red for Juliet – and a chief concern among the leaders, Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), the clans are constantly at each other’s pointed hats, attempting to settle their disputes with pranks and the occasional lawn mower race. While Gnomeo’s main rival Tybalt (Jason Statham) constantly pushes the envelope of propriety, a weird balance is maintained…that is, until our porcelain star crossed lovers are discovered. Then, it’s every outdoor fixture for themselves in an all out knick knack battle royale.
It’s hard to fault the look and feel of Gnomeo and Juliet. The CG animation is flashy and polished, perfectly capturing the Toy Story style appeal of this idea. The famed lawn ornaments come across as fresh, witty, and wonderfully agile. There’s even a small amount of imagination included in the conceptualization to answer inherent questions about nimbleness and human intrusion. Sure, the desire to make everything into a puerile pop culture joke gets old before long. After all, who would buy a partially naked garden gnome that wears a thong? Or a lawn mower that resembles an army armored utility vehicle? Still, we smile when we see the nods to music composer Elton John (he contributes a couple of originals, along with a bevy from his back catalog) and can’t help but grin at the numerous nods to the Bard, Britain, and the belly laughs one can garner from constant, quasi-clever puns.
But the majority of the script stinks. It’s lamentably bad. It basks in the glow of a story so classic that one imagines it can’t be countermanded…and then this movie finds a way to sink it like a stone. It’s not just the lack of emotion or motive in the character’s actions (our hero and heroine fall in love in like five seconds, and then…nothing) or the almost surreal way the creatures can wreck all manner of havoc without raising a single suspicion (one even manages to order items off the Internet without any human being caring). Yes, this is a kiddie film and we are supposed to suspend our always cynical sense of disbelief, but things get so out of hand so quickly that the filmmakers forget to reel them in, turning it all into a frantic, formless farce. By the time the massive mowing machine (voiced by Hulk Hogan, of all things) runs amuck, trying to imply some manner of minor tragedy into the tale, we hate ourselves for hanging around so long.
Again, it’s not a question of execution, but expression. Six screenplays (and as many scribes) were cobbled together over the years, including several that were simply signed off on and then ditched for more derivative punchlines. Disney’s decision to dump this film on sister studio Touchstone should have been a clear indication of what the real value was here. Pixar honcho (and new Head of House of Mouse Animation) John Lassiter immediately cancelled the project when he came onboard, and yet something compelled the creators to keep going. You can see they thought they had something special. The care and intricacy in the character design and implementation back this up. But the rest of the process is a full blown mess, unimaginably confused without even understanding why.
You can actually tell when Gnomeo and Juliet is ready to make that turn into major disappointment territory: it’s the minute Ricky Gervais collaborator Stephen Merchant shows up as Paris, another fixture fancying our heroine’s clay hand in marriage. Initially, his uber-nerd shtick is funny. Then it’s futile. Eventually, it grows dull and dismissive. Almost all the characters have such scripted beats. A water-spouting, urban sass-box frog statue goes from cute to calamity so quickly your head spins and even the wonderful voice work by Statham can’t keep Tybalt from following the standard fiend to fool arc. The occasional stunt casting (Dolly Parton? Ozzy Osbourne) aside, the performances are pitch perfect. It’s just too bad that the bevy of MacBook mechanics behind the scenes couldn’t give them something better to say.
As for John, he acquits himself in only the way a living legend can – by careening through his catalog and picking out the choicest early ’70s bits. “Your Song,” “The Bitch is Back,” and “Crocodile Rock” all get a 2011 tech makeover, while new material like “Hello Hello” and “Love Builds a Garden” are practically Beatlesque in their approach. While it’s odd to see cartoon figures cavorting to classics like “Rocket Man” and “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” it somehow works. It’s just a shame that the script is so scattershot…so shoddy…so Shrek. Indeed, the biggest sin committed by Gnomeo and Juliet is the abandoning of the principles that made its parent company and its digital partner so powerful. Shakespeare once wrote that, in order to get to the truth, “the play’s the thing.” In the case of this otherwise effervescent bit of primary color eye candy, the writing is the least compelling – and successful – element.