“Sherlock Gnomes,” the sequel to “Gnomeo & Juliet” (which came out in 2011 — how on earth did we manage to keep our anticipation under control for this long?), lists Elton John as its sole executive producer, just as the earlier film did. The new movie not only features Elton John’s music (though there’s significantly less of it than there was in “Gnomeo & Juliet”) but a smattering of cutely over-obvious Elton John in-jokes.
When Gnomeo (James McAvoy), the far too square and colorless hero who still looks like the son of C. Everett Koop, tries to infiltrate a flower shop, his comrade, Benny (Matt Lucas), speaks to him over a walkie-talkie using Gnomeo’s code name, Tiny Dancer. During a news report about how the garden gnomes of London are being mysteriously snatched, a photo montage of missing gnomes includes an Elton John gnome seated at a glittery piano. And unless I’m mistaken, the film’s villain, Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a dastardly yellow mascot in a purple diaper and bowtie who suggests an evil version of Baby New Year, has been given a physiognomy — spaced-out chicklet teeth, curvy smile and gleam — that’s a winking echo of Sir Elton’s.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but what exactly is the point of all this Eltoniana? “Gnomeo & Juliet” had enough vintage songs to qualify as an Elton John musical, and they helped to glide you through the movie. But it was still as though someone had said, “Let’s come up with a concept for a musical built around Elton John songs — the concept being that the story, the characters, and the whole damn spirit of the thing should have nothing whatsoever to do with Elton John.”
In “Sherlock Gnomes,” the director, John Stevenson (“Kung Fu Panda”), and the first-time screenwriter, Ben Zazove, seem to be casting about for something — anything! — to give their movie an identity, a hook beyond the noisy, frantic, and desperately tinny action on display. Compared to the average digital adventure devoted to, say, the Smurfs, “Sherlock Gnomes” features animation that’s fantastically detailed and tangible, with the surface of each garden gnome (notably their oblong hats) convincingly scuffed, pocked, cracked, chipped, corroded, weathered, distressed, and earth-encrusted in a way that makes you feel you could reach out and touch them.
They look marvelous, but as characters they’re on the flat, dull side. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt, once again, voice Gnomeo and Juliet, who are now a couple, and the raging conflict between them is that Juliet…has her mind on other things. That’s about it. (Just wait until they have gnome-kids.) In addition to McAvoy and Blunt, “Sherlock Gnomes” showcases an unusually A-list pedigree of vocal talent (Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Johnny Depp voicing Sherlock Gnomes in an impeccably posh but rather anonymous English accent). Yet apart from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who lends Dr. Watson a layered melancholy, the actors give little life to the proceedings, since no one’s bothered to figure what this movie has to offer beyond terrifically tactile stone figures going through the motions of what might be called Generic Animated Action Rescue Plot, with chase scenes set to “The Bitch Is Back,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” and (during a ride on sewer rapids) “I’m Still Standing.”
Little ones may be charmed, but “Sherlock Gnomes” is benign yet witless, with almost no zip or panache or excitement. “Some say it’s a job for Sherlock Gnomes!” says the breathless TV newsreader, reporting on the theft of gnomes from eight adjoining gardens. “Others say it’s a slow news day!” I’d call it the latter.
There’s no kick or twist whatsoever to the character of Sherlock Gnomes. He’s just the classic tweedy snob-logician of legend, and his search for the missing gnomes leads him from one not-exotic-enough locale to the next: a Chinese restaurant where the jokes are both dim and borderline racist, a natural-history museum presided over by gargoyles who talk like East End thugs, and a doll museum where the stage-strutting character of Irene, voiced with gritty gusto by Mary J. Blige, shows up for no good reason apart from the fact that someone decided the movie needed to have at least one showstopper that wasn’t by Sir Elton. That said, the time is ripe for an Elton John musical, on stage or at the movies. He should even executive produce it. Just leave garden gnomes out of it.