Shakespeare with lawn ornaments turns out to be an unexpectedly winning proposition in “Gnomeo & Juliet,” which restages the Bard’s tragedy as a romantic comedy set in the secret world of garden gnomes. Offering a welcome dose of honest silliness at a time when most family-oriented toons settle for smart-alecky, this long-gestating Disney release may be hobbled by middling early buzz, a so-so 3D conversion and a marketing push that doesn’t entirely sell its eccentric charms. Still, it’s the sort of pleasingly goofy diversion that could grow an audience if given the chance. Merchandising and ancillary streams are a given.
Set up at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 2005 through Rocket Pictures, the imprint of exec producer Elton John (who contributed new and classic tunes to the soundtrack), “Gnomeo & Juliet” was initially shelved under the new toon regime of John Lasseter before being passed on to the now-defunct Miramax. Six years after its inception, the film is being released as the first G-rated production under Disney’s Touchstone banner.
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Yet despite all its foster parents (as well as a script and story credited to a kitchen-crowding nine writers), this pint-sized, de-iambicized fairy tale emerges an enjoyable piece of whimsy whose ridiculous premise — think “West Side Story” with porcelain puppets and British accents — is somehow sustained from wobbly start to happy finish. While unlikely to be remembered as an artistic or commercial pinnacle in animation, the film nonetheless disarms with its sparkling vocal turns, adroit balance of humor and emotion, and an engaging visual style that’s all of a piece, despite occasionally trippy interludes that suggest a vintage Troll-doll commercial.
Cranky neighbors Miss Montague (voiced by Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) are unaware that their personal feud is being enacted on a smaller scale by the gnomes that populate their respective gardens. Distinguished by the colors of their pointy hats, the blue gnomes maintain an uneasy stalemate with their red nemeses, the two factions occasionally venting their mutual animosity through high-octane lawn-mower races.
In one of many clever Shakespearean variations, both dashing blue-gnome champion Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and spirited red-gnome damsel Juliet (Emily Blunt) are in disguise when they first meet, and thus fall in love without realizing they’re sworn enemies. When they learn the truth, the fact that their color-coded identities are actually painted on lends their dilemma a measure of authentic poignancy.
One of the immediately appealing aspects of the film’s design, supervised by a team of animators under director Kelly Asbury (“Shrek 2”), is that the star-cross’d lovers, far from being cookie-cutter attractive in the way we’ve come to expect from such fare, are instead allowed to be unapologetically gnomic: petite, pleasingly rotund and full of character. (Gnomeo even sports a trim white beard, which must signify youthfulness in this wizened culture.)
Not unlike the playthings in “Toy Story,” these gnomes spring to life only when humans aren’t watching. If “Gnomeo & Juliet” never quite plumbs the existential depths of that Disney-Pixar franchise, it nonetheless conveys a real and affecting sense of what it’s like to be a fragile knick-knack in a hostile world. When it’s curtains for big bully Tybalt (Jason Statham), the effect may well be too shattering for very young tots, despite the material’s otherwise relentlessly feel-good spin.
While the film bears some of the crasser elements common to most studio toons, it has a refreshing ability to turn its missteps into virtues. Instead of overdoing the pop-culture references, the script overdoes the corny Shakespeare in-jokes — a preferable and educational alternative. Broad supporting characters such as Juliet’s frog nurse (Ashley Jensen) and a Spanish-accented plastic flamingo (Jim Cummings) somehow become endearing with time, while it’s hard to dislike a movie that finds bit parts for Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton. And the fact that garden gnomes themselves are kitsch relics somehow makes the extensive plundering of John’s back catalog (including “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock”) weirdly appropriate.
Production designer Karen deJong brings to life a miniature world of picket fences, overgrown yards and abandoned greenhouses, while Gary Dunn’s involving character designs have none of the stiff, Chucky-like creepiness one might expect. On its own relatively modest terms, “Gnomeo & Juliet” succeeds in creating a fully imagined world, albeit one that would have been more enjoyable, and easier to take in, without the indifferent 3D rendering it receives here.