It is unsurprising that Pixar head honcho John Lasseter shut down production of GNOMEO & JULIET after the acquisition of Walt Disney Animation Studios. The script contains glaring similarities with Lasseter’s own Oscar-winning TOY STORY films – not least the fact that the action centres around a group of supposedly inanimate objects that come to life when nobody is around. The project was eventually revived by Starz Animation Toronto and I for one am glad it finally saw the light of day because, for every moment of shameless plagiarism, there is another finely written Shakespearean gag right behind it.
The film opens with a disclaimer, announced by a diminutive gnome with a pointy hat far larger than the rest of him, that what we are about to see is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers, “only different.” To hammer this point home, the gnome is then dispensed with as he attempts to read the play’s lengthy prologue. There is another scene much later in the film where our hero, Gnomeo (James McAvoy) seeks refuge atop a statue of Shakespeare himself, only for the Bard to come alive and (with the voice of Patrick Stewart) inform him of the play’s original tragic resolution. Gnomeo demands a rewrite and so the numerous screenwriters are thence covered to bring a more upbeat resolution to their film.
GNOMEO & JULIET unsurprisingly shies away from the play’s original dialogue, this is a film for kids after all, but is not adverse to slipping in the occasional gag – “What’s in a gnome?” – for those familiar with the source material. There are also a number of visual allusions to Bill’s other plays, as well as a bus seen heading for his hometown of Stratford Upon Avon. That said, the screenwriters do their best to stick close to the story of two feuding families – in this case blue and red garden gnomes living in neighbouring gardens – and the forbidden love between Juliet Capulet (Emily Blunt) and Gnomeo Montague, with only the character Mercutio notable by his absence. The star-packed voice actors, including Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham and Stephen Merchant, all appear to be enjoying themselves, while the animation style does a fine job of emulating the kitsch aesthetic of crudely painted porcelain ornaments.
While it certainly jars every single time you recognize jokes, character arcs or entire sequences from other, better animated films (most obviously SHREK and TOY STORY), there is still enough intelligence, wit and good natured fun up on screen to give GNOMEO & JULIET a pass. And if it brings Shakespeare’s work to the attention of a new generation then who are we to complain? The classic Elton John numbers littered throughout, however, are almost entirely redundant.