To be a gnome or not be a gnome; that is the question. And the answer, my friends? Go “gnomal” with the most “GNOMETASTIC” film of the year (and my pick for Best Animated Feature at Oscar 2012) - GNOMEO & JULIET!! If I died today, it would be with a smile on my face and a song in my heart after seeing GNOMEO & JULIET. I smiled, laughed, teared up, got goosebumps, smiled some more, laughed a lot more, tapped my toes, danced in my seat and had a grin from ear to ear the entire time...and when the film ended, I wanted to see it again. Plus, I wanted to run out and by the soundtrack! And who do I have to thank for this ebullient joy? How about a little William Shakespeare, a lot of Elton John and one of the most creative film teams of all time all helmed by the enlightened, enthusiastic and energetic director, Kelly Asbury.
We all know the cla ssic tragedy of “Romeo & Juliet”. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Parents hate each other. Friends and foes fight. Many die. Girl feigns death to be reunited with her love. Boy doesn’t know she’s dead and kills himself. Girl awakens and sees her love dead and kills herself. While tragically romantic, a pretty bleak story, huh? For many, though, it’s one of our first introductions to what as teens we perceive as the “boring Bard.” But what if one takes the core love story of Romeo and Juliet and turns it on its head, reimagining and reinventing it for the 21st century with some great story twists, comedy, music, dancing, colorful gardens, beautiful animation and, of course, gnomes. For producers David Furnish, Baker Bloodworth and director Kelly Asbury, this was a no brainer.
Mr. Capulet and Ms. Montague live in none other than Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. With nary a kind word for each other, they have sparked a rivalry for the ages with their gardens. Exquisitely landscaped, each is brimming with a myriad of garden gnomes serving as featured ornaments amidst the flowers. In one garden we find the “Blues” and the other, the “Reds”, as signified by their red and blue hats. But when the humans are away, look out, because the gnomes come out to play! Gnomeo, son of Lady Bluebury, is the best of the Blues, while Juliet is the not-so-ladylike daughter of Red elder, Lord Redbrick, and each has an adventurous streak in them, wanting to go beyond the walls of their world. Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, the big bully of the Reds is Gnomeo’s arch rival. Always supporting Tybalt is the foul-mouthed and seemingly brain dead, Fawn. Across the wall, the impetuous Benny is Gnomeo’s best friend and staunchest supporter, but always wants a little more action with the Reds than he can handle. Sadly, the rivalry of Capulet and Montague has spilled over to their gnomes. With Reds and Blues each determined to best the other, comedy reigns supreme in the garden wars starting with none other than lawnmower races. (You see, Gnomes are very adept little creatures with many talents - including riding lawnmowers.) But while races may get the attention of some, a single beautiful flower bathed in moonlight and stars catches the eye of Juliet who wants to capture the flower for to impress her father and give the Reds one up on the Blues.
With ninja stealth in the dark night, Juliet embarks on her quest, but is soon interrupted by the appearance of a Blue - Gnomeo. Cloaked under cover of a black sock, it’s impossible to tell that Juliet is a Red, so when their eyes lock and little ceramic fingers touch when reaching for the flower, it’s love at first sight for the pair. But in their struggle for the flower, Juliet’s true identity is revealed putting their love to the test. Ah, but true love will not be stopped and with that in mind, the two make a vow to pursue their love. With the help of a plastic pink flamingo named Featherstone, Juliet’s hopelessly romantic best friend frog fountain Nanette, and some orations and opinings from a bronze guy named “Bill”, it seems Gnomeo and Juliet are destined for happiness. But are they? For as Gnomeo and Juliet want to leave the Red and Blue conflict behind and start their own garden in an abandoned home where they met, the gnome wars intensify, descending into madness, mayhem and a Terrafirminator. Will Gnomeo and Juliet face the same fate as Romeo and Juliet? Will the Reds win? Or the Blues? And what happens when their romance is uncovered?
To paraphrase Bernie Taupin, "How wonderful this film is with Elton John in its world!" Before we even get to gnomes, with the very first chord of music, the tone is set and you find yourself hooked. After all, who can resist classic Elton John (and as the film goes on, some new Elton John). A very incongruous relationship between the music and story, according to director Kelly Asbury, after three years of story development once he came onboard, “The music and the script were always on parallel paths. Elton was always involved in story meetings. We would talk to him. It was also incorporating the music and finding a way to do it. They went hand in hand. [The music] is in the fabric of the film.”
So the stage is set with Elton John and then on walks a stumbling little gnome (voiced by director Asbury, no less) and the story takes flight with laughter and light. You are immediately met with humor and the eye-popping kaleidoscope of fun, color and puffery. Bright, light, breezy. There is this great childlike innocence with the story told from the world of gnomes and from their perspective. Kids young and old will gravitate to the visual perspective aspect ratio.
The story itself is well written. Dialogue flows and moves the story along, buoyed by the underlying score of Elton's music. The characters are quickly identified with certain distinct traits. You don't need backstory but for the opening feudal history. You believe in the world of the gnomes. You identify with them. You want to be one of them. You want to be there with them racing lawnmowers or flying through the air under the stars. Everything is magical and fun! Truly appreciated is the use of key Shakespearean lines from a multitude of plays that are not only blended with the script, but inserted in key moments of humor.
And then we have voice casting. SUPERB! James McAvoy and Emily Blunt are pitch perfect as Gnomeo and Juliet. My favorite, though, is Jason Statham as Tybalt. I think he has more dialogue here than in all of his live action films put together. Snarky, mean-spirited, funny, menacing, bullying. Perfect package. And color me silly with Ozzy Osbourne as a deer! Too funny for words, but it works and works well. And you can do no better than Sir Michael Caine as Lord Redbrick and Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Blueberry. What is so enchanting and magical about each voicing and character is that the artisans have incorporated the personas and mannerisms of each actors into each characters. You can see Statham's face in Tybalt; Ozzy's vacuous empty-headedness in Fawn; the perky pluck of Emily Blunt and the defiant look she gets on her face when debating a point, or the glint in her eyes when she speaks of something very dear to her or of which she is very proud; and then the always delightful exuberance and gentle strength of James McAvoy which is captured beautifully in animation. Not to be missed is Dolly Parton as Dolly Gnome, the incomparable Matt Lucas as Benny, Hulk Hogan as Terrafirminator and Sir Patrick Stewart as, who else, but William Shakespeare.
But beyond the humor and fun is the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. The artwork is intricately detailed. And the authenticity to textures - impeccably done. Key is also the color palette used on the gnomes. Anyone that knows gnomes, knows that basic primary colors are all that is used in their clothing, "skin", hair, detail. And the artisans here stay true to that, right down to the effect of chipped porcelain and cracking paint. I just can't say enough about the quality of the art. Asbury gives full credit to animation supervisor Henry Anderson and the team of magicians at Starz Animation. “Henry Anderson, and I worked really hard discussing how can these gnomes and keep the integrity of what they’re made of? The pink flamingo is plastic. He has limitations on what he can do. He has metal rods for legs. Every character that’s made of plaster, stone, rubber, like Nanette the Frog, they all move within the integrity of how they might be able to move.”
Color is not only key to the gnomes but to the individuals worlds. For Asbury, “Our production designer, Karen Dejong, and I worked very hard to say, ‘Okay, let’s keep the colors simple. Let’s make color a character in the movie.’ The Red Garden. The Blue Garden. The Overgrown Garden is wild and green and unkept. The alleyway is a little more hot and neutral and threatening. The outside world is more washed out and hazy and it’s an alien landscape for these gnomes. So, we really paid close attention to give a different character to the different environments of the movie.”
But then combine color, animation, texture, character and add fantasy. The visual result is fantastical - fanciful and beautiful to capture the imagination of even the grumpiest Doubting Thomas. And talking about fantasy, you gotta love some fantasy nods to the two versions of Elton that we've come to know and love - the flamboyant and the more "red piano" version.
The exuberance and energy found in GNOMEO & JULIET clearly comes from Elton John and Kelly Asbury. It’s a close race as to who is more excited when talking about the film as each lights up like a kid tearing open presents on Christmas morning. The handprints of both are on every frame of celluloid and every note of music. Asbury, a lifelong animator and story artist, “story boarded right along with the story team. I work very much doing drawings. I had a team of story artists who also helped me. All of us - we draw. That’s how we communicate. For every department, I would sketch things I needed and wanted.” Within minutes after his first meeting with Elton John, Asbury “drew on a cocktail napkin - just little gnomes. Already I started thinking, “now what would they look like?”
As for Elton John, “Originally, it wasn’t going to be all my music. But, when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got a hold of this project and suggested we write new songs for it, and that it should be an all-Elton John/Bernie Taupin back catalog thing, I thought it was a good idea. I’d never done that before. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard, who is a very famous arranger in this town, and who used to be in my band. I had a great relationship with him.” The end result is like listening to a Best of Elton John concert. Classic songs in classic form but then utilizing Elton's songs as the score with the symphonic orchestral movements - exquisite and beautiful. And then some old classics with new lyrics by Bernie Taupin tailored to the film topped off by several new pieces (including one guaranteed Top 40 duet with Lady Gaga “Hello Hello”), and your heart and emotions soar with that of the film. According to Elton,”It feels like GNOMEO & JULIET with some good music in it.”
A fantasy for the ages, for all ages. Laugh out loud funny, touching, sweet, tender, filled with action for the boys (and girls). Beautiful to watch, beautiful to hear. Your toes will tap and your heart will smile. A timeless, classic story melded with timeless, classic music.
Don't go breaking my heart or yours, and miss this film. Be it Saturday night or any night, GNOMEO & JULIET is more than all right. It’s GNOMETASTIC!
Gnomeo - James McAvoy
Juliet - Emily Blunt
Tybalt - Jason Statham
Fawn - Ozzy Osbourne
Lord Redbrick - Michael Caine
Lady Bluebury - Maggie Smith
William Shakespeare - Patrick Stewart
Directed by Kelly Asbury. Screenplay by Asbury, Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Mark Burton, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg and Steve Hamilton Shaw based on an original screenplay by Rob Sprackling and John Smith, based on original play by William Shakespeare.