Even Bard's tragic tale can't save these lawn ornaments

A boy and a girl from warring garden-gnome clans fall in love.
A boy and a girl from warring garden-gnome clans fall in love.
Posted: February 11, 2011

It's a sorry spectacle, watching garden gnomes being robbed of their dignity.

This diminutive legion, many in dapper beards and pointy hats, can be found in just about every corner of the world, lolling on well-tended lawns, propping up wheelbarrows amid flowers and shrubs.

And they can be found, too, in Gnomeo & Juliet, a computer-animated iteration of Shakespeare's tragic romance in which a boy and a girl from warring clans fall in love, only to discover that old quarrels can have daunting, and sometimes dire, results.

A clever conceit, to be sure, but one that has been botched badly. If second-rate puns, hackneyed scenarios, and an overdose of hoary Elton John tunes are your idea of fun, rush to the multiplex. And be sure to pay the extra bucks for the 3-D glasses. (The most thrilling stereoscopic experience in Gnomeo & Juliet? When Disney's sub-brand imprimatur, "Touchstone Pictures," floats across the screen. Several tots in the preview audience actually Oooh!-ed in delight. From thereon in, however, the 3-D effects are decidedly unspectacular.)

One indication that something is rotten on Verona Avenue - yes, that's the address of the side-by-side gardens of the Capulets and the Montagues, populated, respectively, with red-garbed and blue-garbed gnomes - is the screenplay credit. Not counting the Bard himself, there are nine names cited, a portentous number that suggests this concept was fussed over and story-conferenced to a state bordering on comatose.

Directed by Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2), himself one of the cowriters, Gnomeo & Juliet does boast a formidable - and mostly British - cast of voice actors. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt do the honors for the title characters, and Michael Caine's identifiable London timbre emerges from Lord Redbrick, leader of the red gnomes. Maggie Smith is his counterpart, matriarch of the blues. And Jason Statham supplies the voice for Tybalt, who, in this version, is an ethically challenged cutup who cheats at lawn-mower racing.

But this estimable bunch of thespians is given nothing to work with. If the folks at Pixar justifiably pride themselves on their scripts and stories, the Gnomeo & Juliet folks should just slink away quietly.

"Let's go kick some grass!" exclaims Gnomeo, as he leads a sortie over the wall to take on the enemy.

"I am not illiterate! My parents were married!" says another gnome, indignantly.

"You look like a fun guy," someone quips to the ceramic garden mushroom. Fun guy. Fungi. Get it?

And then there's the Terraferminator, a Transformer-like power-mower that belongs in an altogether different movie. And midway through, along comes a pink flamingo - a plastic pink flamingo. Featherstone has a Cuban accent and a backstory: He was left in a garage after the couple who lived in the house divorced. Cut to a gloomy montage: shadowy silhouettes of a husband and wife, a moving truck, voices of domestic discord.

Great stuff for the kids!

Still, even the lamest of films in which garden gnomes figure has to have its redeeming moments. And in Gnomeo & Juliet, that moment comes, as in Toy Story, when the animated inanimates have to freeze in their tracks as a human being runs by.

This happens once or twice.

Gnomeo & Juliet ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Kelly Asbury. With the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Ashley Jensen, and Jim Cummings. Distributed by Walt Disney/Touchstone.

Running time: 1 hour, 24 mins.

Parent's guide: G (cartoon mayhem, domestic discord)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/



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