by Hugh Fisher
Like any good English major, I’ve seen Shakespeare done and re-done in more ways than Waffle House does hash browns.
The last time I saw “Romeo and Juliet” on the silver screen was Baz Luhrmann’s gun-toting, alt-rock-fueled version from 1996 – the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles.
If you thought replacing swords with pistols and making Verona look like Compton was too far out, wait ‘til you see the CGI animated comedy “Gnomeo & Juliet.” This take on the story of “star-cross’d” (read: “doomed”) lovers is imaginative and easily one of the most fun adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve seen.
The premise: In an English suburb, two crotchety neighbors with adjoining gardens are always at each others’ throats. And when no human eyes are watching, their extensive collections of garden gnomes – red versus blue – carry on the feud.
Enter Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), the blue gnomes’ favorite son. His rival is Tybalt (Jason Statham), who goes most places surrounded by a pack of ceramic henchmen. Instead of swordfights, these two champions compete by racing lawn mowers and playing pranks on one another.
One fateful night, Gnomeo meets the beautiful Juliet (Emily Blunt), Tybalt’s cousin, and the inevitable happens. Love, and lots of it.
Too bad that Gnomeo’s mother, Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), wants him to be the hero to put down the uncivilized red gnomes. Smith, whom you may know best as Professor McGonagall from the “Harry Potter” films, plays the role of the “stiff upper lip” English lady to perfection.
Likewise, Juliet’s father, Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), wants to keep her on a pedestal (literally – at one point, he glues her to her spot in the backyard). Redbrick thinks Juliet is too fragile to exist in the tough world. He tries to marry her off to a nice, “safe” young gnome, Paris.
Gnomeo and Juliet get caught up in the escalation of the feud, and the risk of one of the gnomes getting killed – that is, shattered – increases with each passing day. Will they, or at least their hearts, be smashed to bits as the rivalry turns violent?
There are plenty of celebrity cameos. Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan and Ozzy Osbourne all have funny bit parts.
Jim Cummings steals the show as Featherstone, a talkative pink, plastic flamingo rescued from oblivion in a run-down garden shed, who helps the young couple through their differences.
Ashley Jensen (who had a role in last year’s “How to Train Your Dragon”) is over-the-top as Nanette, Juliet’s friend and confidante, who seems to have taken a few pointers from Snooki.
And Patrick “Captain Picard” Stewart, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor in his own right, voices a talking statue of the Bard himself.
If you paid attention in English class, you’ll see lots of jokes from the plays scattered around the film, such as the delivery truck for “Tempest Teapots.” The writers know their material and borrow from it freely.
“Gnomeo & Juliet” marks a foray into films by executive producer Elton John. The soundtrack is full of classic cuts from the glam rocker’s catalogue, including “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” and “Your Song.”
Hardcore music fans may buy a ticket just to hear the song “Hello, Hello,” Elton John’s much-talked-about duet with Lady Gaga. (She manages to sound like she’s channeling Stevie Nicks, but that’s not really a bad thing.)
Say what you want about Shakespeare, his work is timeless – and timely. You could do a whole lot worse than showing your kids a love story that also teaches the consequences of judging others just by how they look or what their families are like.
And if you want a fun and safe date movie for Valentine’s Day, don’t be afraid to give this one a try.
Even if you’re not a fan of Shakespeare or garden gnomes, the combination is like mixing chocolate and bacon – a surprisingly good treat.
Grade: 3/4 Stars