“Gnomeo” Must Die

Let’s ignore that the premise (let alone title) of this film sounds like a non-sequitur coughed through a haze of marijuana smoke by a giggling teenager in his parents’ basement. There’s a rationale here somewhere. This is, after all, an animated movie for children, so we should be quick to forgive an incoherent plot for a little heart and imagination.

In case it wasn’t clear, “Gnomeo and Juliet” is the story of garden gnomes Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) from opposite sides of rival, color-coded gardens, who must cope with their forbidden love and, in the process, try to convince their ceramic pals that war is not the answer. With mediocre animation and a cornucopia of stale ideas, the film promises all the stuff little kids are into — you know, Shakespeare, Sir Elton John and, um, lawn ornaments.

To no one’s surprise, little of the film actually resembles the classic tragedy. The few references that do surface are presented with such mindless obviousness (like two gardens are owned by a man and a woman named, hmm, Montague and Capulet) that it’s as if the writers are whispering, “Get it?” The result, and chief of the film’s many failures, is an audience divided between children who won’t pick up on it and parents who won’t care.

These gnomes don’t look so hot, either. With plain, undefined features, they come across as hollow shells. Meanwhile,
the breathtaking, meticulously detailed environments of Pixar animation are replaced with cheap-looking scenes of fences, shrubs and identical houses.

“Gnomeo” also suffers from unimaginative attempts at humanization that are consistently overwrought or incomprehensible. Gnomes love lawnmowers (in their world, they’re like cars). Gnomes hate dogs (and vice versa). Gnomes keep their gardens watered and perfectly manicured (makes it easy on the homeowners).

The all-important role of bumbling-but-lovable side- kick is squandered on Juliet’s aggressively annoying, sexually ambiguous frog (Ashley Jensen) and Gnomeo’s silent, featureless mushroom named Shroom. Peripheral characters are crippled by lifeless, left-field performances from a slew of superfluous cameos, each more baffling than the last: Jason Statham as Tybalt, a television commercial narrated by Hulk Hogan and a plastic deer voiced by the mumbling Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne.

Adding to the madness is executive producer Elton John’s out-of-place soundtrack, which includes plenty of his classics, as well as a tragically forgettable new original, “Hello, Hello,” featuring an awkward duet with fellow glamour queen Lady Gaga.

It’s difficult not to blame the extensive team of writers for this mess. The dull script half-assedly inserts Shakespeare quotes into idiotic monologues that sound unfinished. “Why must you wear a blue hat?” begs Juliet from her balcony. “Why couldn’t it be red like my father? Or green like, like a leprechaun? Or purple like, uh, like some weird guy?”

Even for a children’s film, it’s difficult to ignore some of the more major inconsistencies (are we just supposed to brush over the implied romance between Gnomeo’s mom and Juliet’s dad at the end?). In fact, these soulless trolls are so unfunny, so absolutely devoid of likable human characteristics or believable goals, that the biggest disappointment comes during the film’s conclusion, when (spoiler!) we are woefully deprived of the double-suicide bloodbath promised by Shakespeare’s original.

Occasionally, “Gnomeo” even dares to mock its source material — and not just by virtue of being such a catastrophic adaptation. At the film’s climax, a suddenly and inexplicably self-aware Gnomeo chats up a statue of William Shakespeare, as the two literally compare and contrast the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” with what has happened in the film so far. “I think this ending is much better,” says Gnomeo in the final scene, just before the entire cast gears up for a hackneyed community dance-a-thon/curtain call.

Somehow, “Gnomeo and Juliet”’s defiant atrociousness feels like a swan song for the legendary bard. This tale of star-crossed lovers has been reworked to death — be it nimble-footed gangsters or Leonardo DiCaprio — and is finally buried here, under the lawn. (D-)