On our way to Gnomeo and Juliet, my friend Caitlin and I were fist-pumping to Journey. That’s how excited we were to see an animated retelling of one of our most beloved stories. Both of us are Ph.D. students in early modern British literature, and we debated whether this fact would make us biased for or against Gnomeo and Juliet, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet starring—you guessed it—garden gnomes. As it turns out, our graduate education had little to no bearing on our opinion of the film. We both loved it for what it was: an adorable 3D CGI animated movie that tells a timeless love story.
Gnomeo and Juliet is only the second animated film released by Touchstone Pictures, and Touchstone’s first G-rated film ever. Touchstone’s first animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas, set the bar pretty high. Classic Elton John songs constitute the Gnomeo and Juliet soundtrack, as well as one original song performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga.
I probably don’t need to lay out the story, although there are some plot twists that I found to be both clever and respectful. The Montagues and Capulets are not the gnomes themselves, but the elderly man and woman who share an English flat and are in a permanent feud over the state of their gardens. (Their flat numbers are 2B and 2B-crossed-out.) The gnomes partake in this feud, although they only refer to themselves as the “Reds” and the “Blues.” There’s the added caveat of constantly having to be on the lookout for humans, à la Toy Story, but otherwise it’s your standard Romeo and Juliet retelling: boy (James McAvoy) meets girl (Emily Blunt), boy and girl fall in love but cannot be together because of warring factions, boy visits girl at night by popping under the garden wall via a stone hippopotamus. You know, the usual.
What made this particular adaptation so delightful for a couple of nerdy English Ph.D.s was its unapologetic meta-conversation with the play itself. Nanette, the garden frog standing in for the character of Juliet’s nurse (voiced by the delightfully goofy Ashley Jensen), is aware from the get-go that Gnomeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers: “It’s a doomed love, and that’s the best kind,” she says, and she refers to their love as “romantically tragic.”
And that, it seems, is the vehicle by which director Kelly Asbury turned the quintessential Shakespearean tragedy into a movie for children: Gnomeo and Juliet actively discusses tragedy as a generic trope, and by doing so sets itself free from the confines of the original story. The conversation Gnomeo has with a statue of William Shakespeare himself, voiced by Patrick Stewart, outside the garden walls invites the audience to consider the implications of looking a drama square in the face and saying, “No. I’m not going to follow the rules.”
That is not to say Gnomeo and Juliet wanted to avoid tragedy entirely: having gotten around suicide with an unhappy and misinterpreted accident does not render this film any less emotionally charged. It’s a truly affecting film that maintains the idea of lost love in other ways—separation, death, and the implications of divorce help this bright kids’ movie hold onto some semblance of what the original story intended us all to feel: like our hearts have been wrenched, perhaps never to be made quite right again.
Gnomeo is considerably less emo than what I think the Bard would have expected, his adolescent immaturity in the beginning stemming not from love-induced melancholy but from a hot-headed need for revenge. But Gnomeo changes his tune when his heart is rent asunder on the roof of a greenhouse, and the story culminates in what Caitlin called “the cutest attack ever” as the Reds and the Blues find themselves head-to-head with the consequences of family feuds. The frequent allusions to other Shakespeare plays and the star-studded British cast pleased this Shakespeare nerd and Anglophile to no end, and I was surprised and delighted to see the ease with which the squeal-inducing (yes, I squealed) charm could seamlessly integrate tragic elements.
I actually find myself surprised to say that I don’t want to ruin the ending of one of the most oft-retold stories in literary history (as little Benny, or Benvolio, states at the beginning: “This story has been told before. A lot.”) Suffice it to say I suggest you go see how Gnomeo and Juliet playfully molds the tragic form while looking over its shoulder as if to say, in a way not at all pretentious, “See how clever we’re being here?”