DVD Release Date:  May 24, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: February 11, 2011
Rating: G
Genre: Comedy, Family, Animation
Run Time: 84 min.
Director: Kelly Asbury
Actors: Voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Jason Statham, Ashley Jensen, Michael Caine, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Maggie Smith

O Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art the humorless dialogue, interchangeable characters and lifeless satire I expected from the previews for Gnomeo & Juliet? Instead, your film—which updates the Romeo and Juliet story for the young set, substituting red and blue garden gnomes for Capulets and Montagues—has several laughs and a mostly gentle spirit. If that’s what it takes to expose kids to Shakespeare, I’m all for it. Your film certainly could’ve been much worse than it is.

In the movie, two groups—the red- and blue-hatted gnomes—live at odds with one another in the yards of their adversarial human owners. Whenever those owners aren’t watching, the gnomes race lawn mowers, taunt each other and seek to disrupt and destroy the lives of their enemies.

But why are they enemies? Blue-hatted Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy) isn’t sure. He knows only that his mother raised him to hate the Reds. But that disposition is put to the test when he meets Juliet (Emily Blunt), a red-hatted gnome whose father, Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), disapproves of their union. “Because you’re blue, my father sees red, and because I’m red I’m feeling blue,” Juliet laments.

A couple of sidekicks—a gnome named Benny (Matt Lucas), lawn flamingo Featherstone (Jim Cummings), frog matchmaker Nanette (Ashley Jensen)—as well as villain gnome Tybalt (Jason Statham) and his deer abettor Fawn (Ozzy Osbourne) round out the lively group of characters. Even the Bard shows up in the form of a statue that converses with Gnomeo and dispenses details about the story’s tragic ending (Gnomeo insists that a happy ending would be far preferable to a sad one).

Those who enjoyed the way the Shrek movies updated classic fairy tales will likely get a kick out of Gnomeo & Juliet’s take on Shakespeare. Sure, the basic premise of inanimate objects coming to life when their owners aren’t around is strikingly similar to the Toy Story movies, yet Gnomeo isn’t in the same league as those Pixar works. However, just because it doesn’t clear that high bar doesn’t mean the movie should be dismissed. Its script, co-written by director Kelly Asbury and Mark Burton (Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit) among others, sets its silly tone in the first scene, in which a gnome reads a “long, boring prologue” to the audience. Soon Lord Redbrick is raging against the taunts of the Blues with responses that will sail right over the heads of the youngest viewers (“I am not illiterate! My parents were married!”). That comment, and a few remarks from the prying Nanette about Juliet’s love life, are about as edgy as this G-rated film gets. But sassy moments are offset with sweet ones, as when Gnomeo, down on one knee, asks Juliet, “Will you stay here and build a garden with me?”

Snarling dogs provide a few scary moments for very young viewers, but the lessons of this story should reach audience members of all ages. By the time the characters are shouting, “A gnome for a gnome!” and “Revenge!,” the futility of long-term, escalating violence will be apparent. But the film is never heavy-handed, choosing to end with Gnomeo’s hoped for happily-ever-after scenario.