Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gnomeo & Juliet

No other writer lends himself to so many different film interpretations as William Shakespeare, whose plays have spawned musicals (West Side Story), teen comedies (10 Things I Hate About You), even cartoons (though not credited as such, Hamlet is an obvious source of inspiration for The Lion King). The latter genre is used again for a peculiar take on Romeo and Juliet, put together with CGI under Disney's Touchstone banner.

Gnomeo and Juliet is the latest animated re-telling of the classic Shakespeare’s classic tale of woe (that of fair Juliet and her timing-challenged Romeo). I definitely did not have high expectation from it seeing as the original manuscript a.k.a. Romeo & Juliet is not my favourite play besides it being not exactly applicable to the current generation on a lot of levels but have to say this animated re-telling was clearly a surprise.

Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean...The film begins with an amusing homage to these lines, before we really get into it. The garden gnomes of two neighbouring backyards, the Red Gnomes and the Blue Gnomes, have an ongoing rivalry as to who's garden is best. They constantly try to sabotage each other and dislike each other immensely. After a lawnmower race in which Tybalt the Red gnome (voice of Jason Statham) beats the Blue gnome Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy), Gnomeo and sidekick Benny decide to sneak in by night and vandalise the Red's garden. Meanwhile Juliet (Emily Blunt), protected and thought too fragile by her father Lord Redbrick, is desperate to prove she is otherwise. Gnomeo and Juliet meet, and the rest is history as they say.

The Shakespeare jokes herein feel like they have a point and purpose, especially when a character voiced by Patrick Stewart turns up to effectively demolish the fourth wall and talk about the relative merits of the Bard's storytelling. And, on the whole, it is something better than expected. However, it's not above borrowing certain tropes and story beats wholesale from other animated hits. For instance, one scene involving the flamboyant plastic flamingo, Featherstone, is straight out of Toy Story 2. Surprisingly, though, as much diminished impact as there is when you recognise that scene, there is an impact nonetheless.

At least, the film does a stand-up job of ingratiating you with the characters on show beyond anything you could ever have reasonably expected from a film called Gnomeo & Juliet. There's a nice sense of jeopardy established in how fragile the characters are. As in Toy Story, they're inanimate objects that come to life, and thus are perfectly breakable.

Presumably, it's Elton John's name that attracted such a starry cast, perhaps more so than the Disney banner. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt fill in for the lead roles originally taken by Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet, but they're pretty interchangeable. There's more pleasure in hearing the tones of Michael Caine, Dame Maggie Smith and, oddly, Jason Statham. If the prospect of Jason Statham (finally) playing a gnome doesn't sell your ticket right now, nothing can. Along with Statham, there's another genuinely funny vocal turn by none other than Hulk Hogan, whose voice is instantly recognisable and entirely appropriate for the cameo in question. British TV stars Matt Lucas, Ashley Jensen and Stephen Merchant all put on slightly sillier voices for their respective turns, and each become slightly annoying at certain points in the film. Crucially, though, each of them managed to make me laugh at least once.

The whole thing is a camp, colourful and deeply eccentric affair. So eccentric, in fact, that there's a sense of jeopardy throughout that's often lacking in other CG animated affairs. It's more eclectic than certain other films, and as mentioned, the source material looms large. If you assumed this is no good on first impression, you wouldn't be the first. One of John Lasseter's first acts when Disney acquired Pixar was to shut this production down.

Of course, the film can't follow the original play exactly - this is a kids movie! It's not a tragedy, it's a comedy. This is where I expected to be let down - I honestly didn't think I would find it funny, but I'm glad to say for the most part, I found this film charming and funny. It could have been funnier, but the younger audience will love it, which is the important thing I suppose.

Shakespeare fans will have fun spotting the little references to the Bard's works (including a cleverly worked in quote from Macbeth of all plays). I did. For instance, the owner of the Blue Gnomes is Miss Montague (Romeo's family in the play), while the owner of the Red's is Mr. Capulet (Juliet's last name). The owners themselves hate each other. Spotting the celebrity voices is fun too. Michael Caine is Lord Redbrick, Maggie Smith is Lady Bluebury (I didn't notice this) - I particularly enjoyed Patrick Stewarts brief appearance as a statue of Shakespeare, with whom Gnomeo has a brief conversation. Shakespeare was a smug guy. The voices were all well cast, and the animation is of a good quality.

It might not appeal to its target audience as much as it would entertain an older crowd who are largely more cynical about it. But i found it fairly good.


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