Andy Bockelman: New cartoon is ‘gno’ Shakespeare, but still entertains

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

'Gnomeo and Juliet'

2.5 out of 4 stars

84 minutes

Starring the voices of: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith.

Now playing at the West Theatre and Steamboat Springs’ Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

No matter how acclaimed a classic theatrical work may be, there are always ways to keep it up with the times.

If the animated update “Gnomeo and Juliet” is any indication, William Shakespeare might have garnered even greater accolades for his most famous play if he’d only thrown in a few lawn jockeys and whirligigs as supporting characters.

But, what’s done is done …

Neighbors Miss Montague (voice of Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) have always despised each other for reasons neither of them really remembers. This animosity is a shared trait among the various garden gnomes and other inanimate objects in their backyard gardens that come to life when their human owners are out of sight.

On one side of the fence is Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), who wants nothing more than to show next-door matriarch Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) who has the better lawn, and she is no less hostile. Right in the thick of the Red/Blue rivalry are Redbrick’s daughter, Juliet (Emily Blunt), and Bluebury’s son, Gnomeo (James McAvoy), but when the two finally meet face to face one moonlit night, all the ugly things they’ve been brought up to believe about each other merely fade away.

Still, even with their newfound love, Gnomeo and Juliet know that their relationship may crumble if it ever comes to the attention of their kinfolk.

As two of the brightest young British actors of their generation, McAvoy and Blunt are well-suited to portray cartoon versions of the best-known star-crossed lovers of all time, although neither really brings much of a unique pitch to their parts. There are richer vocal performances by Caine as Juliet’s pompous, vocabularically-challenged father and Smith as Gnomeo’s mum, who’s no less eccentric than her Red adversary, obsessed with preserving the prized wisteria vines growing from the Blues’ planter — a toilet.

Jason Statham adds a touch of cool as Tybalt, a macho egoist who isn’t even liked by his fellow Reds but doesn’t fail to show Gnomeo up when they’re racing lawn mowers in the alley. Shakespearean nomenclature is retooled a little bit for a little guy with English comic Matt Lucas providing an agreeable squeak for Gnomeo’s buddy, Benny — renamed from Benvolio — a pint-sized gnome sporting a hat as big as his body.

A loud-mouthed, water-spouting frog named Nanette (Ashley Jensen) fills in for the role of Juliet’s nurse, while flamboyant plastic flamingo Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is a modern-day Friar Laurence, wholeheartedly supporting Gnomeo and Juliet in their taboo love, having seen what discord will do to someone after losing his beloved wife following a split-up between his owners.

As they say, divorce is always hardest on the lawn decorations.

No such sad ending is in store for our title couple, but with a G-rated movie, you knew that already. The classic tragedy may have been captured onscreen umpteen times, but purists will always tell you that it needs the traditional finale.

Gnomeo even gets into a debate with a park statue of the Bard of Avon (Patrick Stewart) about what a downer the original story is while the two are comparing notes about the protagonist’s ongoing feud of the Bloods and the Crips.

The sugarcoating of unpleasantness doesn’t keep this cartoon from being good for a few laughs, especially with kids, who will get a thrill out of the fast pace and unassuming sense of humor. Adults, meanwhile, will appreciate the musical score by James Newton Howard combined with the repertoire of Elton John, who also serves as executive producer and lends his likeness to Juliet’s would-be boyfriend, Paris (Stephen Merchant).

Also, Shakespeare buffs should be on the lookout for a variety of in-jokes, including but not limited to the duplex addresses of 2B and Not 2B, a tube of epoxy inscribed “Taming of the Glue,” a delivery truck for Tempest Teapots and an unfriendly bulldog — “Out! Out, damned Spot!”

But, the drawback of all these features is that everything feels much more chaotic and overdone than it should be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the animation, which straddles the line between the quaint, hand-painted charm of traditional garden gnomes and the repulsive, mass-manufactured feel of every tacky garden ornamentation that has ever been churned out.

And, speaking of things that look like a pathetic plaster replica of an actual living being, whose idea was it to cast Ozzy Osbourne as the voice of a Bambi look-alike?

Although “Gnomeo and Juliet” relies more on wacky characters and throwaway jokes than the plot points of the story on which it’s based, the energy eventually wins you over. Imagine looking at it like the gaudiest, most over-decorated front yard in the neighborhood: It’s corny, it can be exhausting just to look at, but if it puts on a smile on your face, it can’t be all bad.

Now playing at the West Theatre and Steamboat Springs’ Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

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