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No tragedy, just heart in ‘Gnomeo’

POSTED: February 10, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/Touchstone Pictures

Juliet, voiced by Emily Blunt, left, and Gnomeo, voiced by James McAvoy, center, and Featherstone, voiced by Jim Cummings, are the tiny stars of "Gnomeo and Juliet." The film is a remake of the classic Romeo and Juliet tale from Shakespeare, but don't expect such a tragic ending.

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Oh, I can just hear it now. All the Shakespeare purists will soon be noisily picking apart "Gnomeo & Juliet," an unassuming animated family movie that riffs on "Romeo and Juliet." They'll pull out quotes arguing for the gravity with which we must treat The Bard and prove the essentially tragic nature of the original play.

"For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and Romeo."

To take that attitude is to miss the whole point of a movie about garden gnomes. Change "Romeo" to "Gnomeo," and obviously this is no longer a heavy tragedy.

Rather than fair Verona and two powerful families, this love story takes place among the backyards of two British neighbors.

All the gnomes in one yard are Reds, while the gnomes on the other side of the privacy fence are the Blues. Their feud has raged for as long as anyone can remember, but no one has ever crossed the fence into enemy territory.

Until one day when Gnomeo (James McAvoy) spots Juliet (Emily Blunt) in neutral territory on another property. It is of course love at first sight, and each happens to be wearing clothes that conceal their backyard allegiances.

Gnomeo is soon revealed to be a Blue and Juliet a Red, but too late. It is the east, Juliet is the sun, and the love spell is cast. Gnomeo begins wishing he were a glove on Juliet's hand so he could touch her cheek, Juliet is ready to no longer be a Red, and all that lovely, goopy jazz.

However, as is always the way, their love knot tangles up Juliet and Gnomeo into the old feud.

Battles ensue, hearts are broken, and a plague, or out of control lawn mower, threatens to consume both houses.

The big question for anyone who knows the play, naturally, is whether this is still a tragedy. You did read that this is about gnomes, right?

How to end a family version of the most tragic love story of all time was surely the most difficult decision facing the writers, and they take the absolute best approach. They address the decision openly, in a way that nods to the original with both reverence and cheek. Then they devise an ending less likely to leave your 6-year-old shattered and sobbing uncontrollably.

Give the kid a few more years of innocence before he or she reads the original and experiences that particular catharsis.

Not that there are no tears at all. This is a comedy throughout, but it manages to be surprisingly emotional at times.

If a movie can earn praise for what it does not do, "Gnomeo & Juliet" certainly deserves kudos for not pretending to be anything other than an entertaining diversion that's genuinely safe for young kids.

The nippers will enjoy the bouncy Elton John soundtrack, which fits both the silliness and melodrama perfectly, as well as an endless series of slapstick laughs.

The voice cast is amazing for both the number of talented players and the inspired choices.

Legends like Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and Richard Wilson are joined by future hall-of-famers Julie Walters and Patrick Stewart. But these heavyweights mingle with the likes of Jason Statham, Stephen Merchant, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton.

If anyone steals the show, though, it's Ashley Jensen, who voices Juliet's loyal, ditzy confidant, a frog named Nanette. She delivers most of the lines your kids will be quoting afterward.

"Gnomeo & Juliet" will not win awards or appear on Top 10 lists, it won't live up to the unreachable expectations inevitably placed on Shakespearean adaptations, nor does it strive to do those things.

It merely sets out to give us plenty of laughs, an occasional sniffle, and a great diversion.


Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.

 



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