"Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny ... ."
About this point, the gnome reciting the prologue to Romeo and Juliet is yanked offstage by a big Bugs Bunny hook. This is no epic tale of woe, this romance of Juliet and her Gnomeo. Even if "the story you are about to see has been told before. A lot." You've never seen it told like this.
Gnomeo and Juliet is a daft and generally deft British animated retelling of the star-crossed romance set in adjacent English back-yard gardens and set to the music of Elton John (he and his Rocket Films produced it). And if it's not an unerringly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's play, it manages enough wit and charm to pull it off.
Lady Bluebury (voiced by Maggie Smith) keeps her blue gnomes on her side of the garden fence. But Gnomeo (James McAvoy) would rather be racing lawn mowers and chasing girl gnomes.
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The blue gnomes have long hated the red gnomes. Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) has his daughter, Juliet (Emily Blunt) up on a pedestal — literally — and sputters malapropisms any time she fancies coming down to hang with the lads.
Hotheaded Tybalt (Jason Statham, perfect) is the one who stirs things up the most. He cheats in the lawn-mower races and treats everything as a blood sport. Except there is no blood. When gnomes die, they're shattered. Literally.
Then Gnomeo spies fair Juliet, and you adults know the rest. Gnomeo is smitten.
Other voices include Ozzy Osbourne, Julie Walters and Hulk Hogan. A goofy lovesick plastic flamingo (Jim Cummings) is the friar, that one person sympathetic to star-crossed lovers. The funny sidekicks aren't funny enough, save for the porcelain frog, Nannette (Ashley Jensen), who fills the role of Juliet's nurse.
There is no Mercutio. But there is a Benvolio: Gnomeo's cousin "Bennie," as in Bennie and the Jets.
That works because often, Elton John's music, either the original Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting or an orchestration of it, slips in. If you can't see how neatly Your Song fits into this story, you're not remembering "how wonderful life is, while you're in the world."
Kids will enjoy the gnome-fu fighting and lawn-mower racing. And adults will grin at the bulldog, chased out of the yard with "Out! Out damned Spot!" Patrick Stewart voices a certain famous playwright as a statue in a nearby park, and a moving company is named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Director and co-writer Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) finds just enough jokes and moments of heart to lift Gnomeo above most recent animated B-movies. But it's a pity he erred on the side of Shrek. The pathos and wit of the Bard bests the sight gags and one-liners of the Big Green Ogre every time.