Ignore the title. Whatever you do, ignore that title. And ignore the idea that the film itself sprang from the title’s pun – because if it did, even I can’t defend it.
Instead, picture the opening scene. An animated gnome on an animated stage tells us we’re going to see a story about “two star-crossed lovers, kept apart by a big feud”, which “has been told before … a lot”, and “now we’re going to tell it again, but different”, and “it’s all quite entertaining”. This gnome then falls through a trapdoor, having just about avoided attempts by a big hook, creeping from the wings, to yank him off-stage. Confused? You probably should be. Just wait until you see …
Scene Two: two animated gardens, full of animated gnomes. The human owners of the gardens leave their homes for the day, and the gnomes come alive, just like in Toy Story. (Though I’m sure, for legal reasons, not quite just like in Toy Story.) “Laaaaaaa, la, la, la, la, laaaaa …” Is that 1973 Sir Elton John hit Crocodile Rock in the background? Strangely enough, yes it is. Slightly odd, but carry on.
The gnomes begin their day. I’ve never seen so many gnomes, in any context, ever. Five gnomes are trying to play football with a ball stuck to a gnome’s backside. One gnome is wearing a mankini. One gnome has a distinctive Birmingham accent hoarse with age and drug consumption. Surely not. Somehow, yes. Ozzy Osborne is in this film! What is going on?
If I haven’t yet persuaded you to watch Gnomeo & Juliet, then, realistically, I never will. Nothing in it makes sense, and it’s gleeful. From those two opening sequences emerge a loose Romeo and Juliet plot, with a star-crossed lover emerging from each of the two gardens (voiced by Emily Blunt and James McAvoy), both of whose gnome populations are fiercely xenophobic towards other gnomes, despite looking almost exactly the same as them (except with differently coloured hats).
The critics were not thrilled with Gnomeo & Juliet when it was first released. Time Out thought its “lack of inspiration” a “tragedy”; the New York Times considered it “a discombobulated grab bag of jokes peopled with characters who have little emotional resonance”. AV Club even accused it of “a particular kind of obnoxious, blinkered self-satisfaction”. I think that’s a little harsh on what is surely one of the most innocuous movies ever made. Don’t even get me started on the Austin Chronicle’s view that “novelty alone does not a good idea make, and in the case of Gnomeo & Juliet, it’s rather a disturbing, even fetishy one.” Yikes.
One thing many reviews did concede, largely approvingly, was the film’s intrinsic strangeness. Empire praised its “near-constant sense of madcap invention”; the Daily Telegraph admitted that, if nothing else, Gnomeo & Juliet was “certainly novel”.
I love the madness for its own sake, but I think, if you look hard enough, there’s method behind it, too. All the film’s chaos is channelled into the affectionate subversion of humdrum English life. Normally petrified gnomes crack into agile, dynamic action. Sacrosanct Shakespeare is lightly mocked, and his plots rewritten. Even the very pace of the British garden – gentle, stagnant – is accelerated madly, through fierce editing and bombastic set pieces. The most extreme of the latter comes at the film’s climax, as a gargantuan American lawnmower spirals unhinged through both gardens, demolishing them. Is this a critique of brash American influence over quiet European life? Or is it an overblown finale designed to push kids’ attention to the film’s end? I’m genuinely serious when I say: maybe both?
The Hollywood Reporter called the film “a collection of shtick-heavy bits from reclaimed material, offering little that’s fresh or fully dimensional”. I agree with it being blended together, reusing past themes, humour and aesthetic choices. But I think the collage effect works an idiosyncratic treat, building in bricolage an image of eccentric Englishness and suburban camp.
If its Englishness is tweely old-fashioned, then, well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With a voice cast of acting legends developed in the middle of the last century – Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Richard Wilson, Patrick Stewart – and the throbbing early-70s glitz of Sir Elton sparkled over the soundtrack, the film feels like a ludicrous homage to a fading cultural world, generated 50 years ago, but clinging on to relevance with mad vibrancy into the 2010s. Gnomeo & Juliet gives us the unexpected last act of Swinging Britain. And wow does it feature a lot of gnomes.