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Gnomeo & Juliet: Blu-ray + DVD Review

Gnomeo & Juliet movie poster Gnomeo & Juliet

Theatrical Release: February 11, 2011 / Running Time: 84 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Kelly Asbury / Writers: Rob Sprackling, John Smith (story & original screenplay); Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Kelly Asbury, Steve Hamilton Shaw (story & screenplay); Mark Burton, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg (screenplay)

Voice Cast: James McAvoy (Gnomeo), Emily Blunt (Juliet), Ashley Jensen (Nanette), Michael Caine (Lord Redbrick), Matt Lucas (Benny), Jim Cummings (Featherstone), Maggie Smith (Lady Bluebury), Jason Statham (Tybalt), Ozzy Osbourne (Fawn), Stephen Merchant (Paris), Patrick Stewart (Bill Shakespeare), Julie Walters (Miss Montague), Hulk Hogan (Terrafirminator V.O.), Kelly Asbury (Red Goon Gnomes), Richard Wilson (Mr. Capulet), Dolly Parton (Dolly Gnome)

Featured Songs: Elton John - "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)", Elton John and Lady Gaga - "Hello Hello", Wally Boag, Fulton Burley, Thurl Ravenscroft and The Mellomen - "The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room", Elton John and Kiki Dee - "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", Elton John - "Your Song", Elton John - "Love Builds a Garden", Nelly Furtado featuring Elton John - "Crocodile Rock" / Songs Incorporated Into Score: (performed by Elton John unless otherwise noted) "Crocodile Rock", "Tiny Dancer", "Rocket Man" "Don't Cha", "Your Song", "The Bitch is Back", "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts", "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word", "I'm Still Standing", "Bennie and the Jets"

Buy Gnomeo & Juliet from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD DVD Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy


As one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet is therefore one of the best-known works in the history of English fiction. Unsurprisingly, it has been put on film a few times, though fewer than you might expect from its pedigree.
In terms of faithful adaptations, there is George Cukor's 1936 movie starring Norma Shearer and Gone with the Wind's Leslie Howard and there is Franco Zeffirelli's age-appropriately cast 1968 retelling. Beyond them lies the version most familiar to modern audiences: director Baz Luhrmann's imaginative 1996 filming that kept the original text but updated the setting. Shakespeare's tragedy was also molded into 1961's Broadway-born, Oscar-winning musical West Side Story. And now, there is Gnomeo & Juliet, which brings the late-16th century tale to life with garden gnomes.

This is not the first time the tragic tale of young, star-crossed lovers has been animated: there was Canada's 1979 robot romance TV special Romie-0 and Julie-8, Russia's early 1990s TV series "Shakespeare: The Animated Tales" covered it in an episode, and 2006's feature cartoon Romeo & Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss cast young seals in the lead roles. Even The Lion King II: Simba's Pride used the play as its template.

As far as I can tell, Gnomeo is, however, the first to do it in computer animation. And it's the first to do it with Elton John, since the legendary musician wasn't involved in that 1998 direct-to-video follow-up to the world's most successful Shakespeare-inspired cartoon. John serves as executive producer of this film, lending both his classic songs and a couple of all-new original ones to its soundtrack.

It's love at first sight for Gnomeo and Juliet, garden gnomes from rival opposite sides of an English fence, who meet with an orchid between them.

This incarnation is set on Verona Drive, specifically an English duplex whose adjoining neighbor residents have been fighting for a long time. "Montague" and "Capulet" read the names on their mailboxes, which, like everything else about the homes, offer color contrast. The Montagues are blue and the Capulets are red, which makes it very easy for the abundance of lawn gnomes on either side of the fence to recognize friend and foe. No one knows why the blue-hatted gnomes and the red-hatted gnomes, both inanimate when their feuding owners or other humans are in sight, don't get along. They just don't.

One night, both blue-hatted Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and red-hatted Juliet (Emily Blunt) go on separate stealthy missions for the same neighborhood orchid they each think would liven up their lawn. They meet and it's apparently love at first sight, despite the differing colors of their hats. The rest of the movie shows that though their affiliations tear them apart, true love could conquer all.

Gnomeo & Juliet feels more like a series of ideas allowed to play out than a film that has gone through the usual animation development process to tighten and heighten it. Fast, short, and somewhat banal, this parade of mildly amusing jokes (attributed to nine writers!) is more tolerable than it ought to be. Much of the humor is meant to soar over kids' heads and though it's not quite innocent (e.g. "let's go kick some grass!" and a mushroom named Shroom), it's not racy or crude enough to warrant the MPAA's increasingly dispatched PG rating. The comedy relies only on references that play on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean (like a laptop with a banana logo and a desktop whose screensaver is a bouncing David Hasselhoff head), ensuring it's all fairly obvious and widely accessible.

Competitive lawnmower races determine status between the red and blue gnomes, a fact both Gnomeo and Tybalt are aware of as one whizzes past the other. Juliet's amphibian confidante Nanette is both romantic and bonkers.

Elton John music and Shakespeare's story are inserted when the movie needs a montage song or something to do in between jokes. There aren't many direct parallels to the text, but the film takes enough efforts to argue that it's not shamelessly exploiting it, a case it makes while spelling out its brand of irreverence. The play's famous prologue fuels a sight gag in which unseen forces try to deter a boring reading of it. In one of the film's most clever bits, Shakespeare himself turns up in statue form (fittingly voiced by Patrick Stewart) to tell Gnomeo how he foresees things ending, as they do in his version. Other less than subtle nods to the author come in the truck of
Rosencrantz + Guildenstern Movers and an adhesive called Taming of the Glue. Chuckle, chuckle.

The use of Elton John's music, whether excerpting the real deal or incorporating the melodies into the score by James Newton Howard and Chris Bacon, is not unwelcome. But it does turn the movie into an odd exhibition of ego. The design would make more sense if John wasn't the one making the movie. As such, it feels a bit like an old musician sitting back and admiring his work, nothing strange for a concert by an accomplished performer but that isn't what one enters expecting here.

In a voice cast chockfull of British TV and film actors, the flashiest work goes to unlikely places. Ashley Jensen ("Ugly Betty" and Ricky Gervais' "Extras") has fun with the loopy garden frog Nanette, Juliet's confidante. Meanwhile, legendary American animation voice actor Jim Cummings (the longtime voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, among countless other characters) supplies a different kind of lunacy as the Spanish-accented decorative flamingo Featherstone, newly released from captivity.

Bill Shakespeare himself shows up in bronze statue form, but is of little comfort to an exiled Gnomeo. The lines are clearly drawn between the Blue Montagues and Red Capulets on fair Verona Drive, where we lay our scene.

Gnomeo & Juliet was a long time coming. The project was over four years underway at Walt Disney Feature Animation in early 2006 with Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet set to voice the title roles. Then, John Lasseter and his fellow Pixar executives put in power over Disney animation pulled the plug. This was not the first time the production faced resistance, with Beauty and the Beast's Gary Trousdale and Don Hahn once attached to direct and produce, respectively. Gnomeo found new life at Miramax Films, then part of the Disney family.

As hinted by Miramax's dwindling and underperforming ouput, a far cry from the division's 1990s glory days with the Weinstein brothers, Disney looked to unload both the banner and its catalog.
Along with Julie Taymor's Christmas release of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Gnomeo was spared leaving with the rest of the Miramax lot. Disney shifted it over to Touchstone Pictures, making it the very first G-rated release of that branch established in 1984 to distribute adult fare.

With the way that it had been dumped to Miramax, surrounded by doubt and unfavorable buzz, no one seemed to expect much from Gnomeo. And yet it seized the marketplace in the traditionally uncompetitive winter season, outgrossing all but two films from the first three months of the year (Rango and Adam Sandler's Just Go With It). It is still looking to crawl its way past the $100 million mark domestically that many a recent in-house Disney Animation film have barely, if at all, passed.

While its box office success might lead you to expect Disney embracing the movie and identifying it with the company name, the way they did for the smash hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the gradually appreciated The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gnomeo & Juliet comes to video next week with its Touchstone branding (now largely reserved for the DreamWorks Pictures productions Disney is distributing) intact. Although, it does include Disney Movie Rewards points and arrives in the same combinations as other upcoming 3D Disney movies. Customers can buy the film in a single-disc DVD, a 3-disc Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy, and the more practical 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo pack we review here.

Gnomeo & Juliet: Blu-ray + DVD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish; Blu-ray Only: English
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled and Captioned
Release Date: May 24, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Side-Snapped Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray 2D + DVD + Digital Copy ($49.99 SRP)
and standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Unsurprisingly but happily, Gnomeo & Juliet boasts spectacular picture and sound on Blu-ray, leaving nothing to be desired on either front. The 1.85:1 visuals reveal that Toronto's Starz Animation, the company who worked on Space Chimps and the VeggieTales sequel The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, has improved their aesthetics. The bright colors pop without bleeding and there is enough shading and depth to avoid that unfortunate low-budget feel. Employing 7.1 channels, the DTS-HD mix is full of life, delivering both music and sound effects crisply and from all over the sound field.

Also a product of direct digital transfer, the DVD offers its own estimation of perfection, unhindered by any imperfection but not having quite the detail of the Blu-ray's higher definition presentation. It's tough to imagine anyone who isn't on an all-Blu-ray diet being underwhelmed by the DVD's pleasing picture and dynamic Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

Gnomeo's mind wanders as Featherstone the flamingo tries to play a game using parts of an assortment of other games. This gnome gets to parody David Caruso in a deleted CSI spoof leading to Romeo's exile.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The standard supply of bonus features begins with "Elton Builds a Garden" (5:47), a brisk making-of featurette that races through the 9-year production in about a minute, before moving its attentions to the voice cast and the music.
The piece could have easily been expanded to 30 minutes or an hour and stayed interesting, but the 6-minute version will have to suffice indefinitely.

Next come two Blu-ray-exclusive alternate endings (4:05), which mildly animate partly-colored storyboards. Director Kelly Asbury introduces these slightly variations on the film's upbeat conclusion.

Eight items are provided in an unexpectedly epic Blu-ray-only section called "Deleted and Alternate Scenes with Filmmaker Introductions" (42:25, SD). Presented in the same story reel state with temp track recordings, music, sound effects, and far more animated touches, these include an alternate opening, Featherstone playing a hybrid of board games, an alternate version of Gnomeo and Juliet's date, a more mellow Featherstone's introduction, and other abandoned concepts like a "CSI" spoof, assorted international weather vanes of little help to Gnomeo, a penguin garbage can, and Juliet's wedding ruse. While many viewers will consider this overkill and kind of out-of-place on a set otherwise glossing over the bumpy production, there is some interest to these and they are well-presented. With measured enthusiasm, Asbury sets up all eight individually and as a group.

Scottish actress Ashley Jensen talks voicing Nanette the garden frog in English and, briefly, Japanese. Nelly Furtado and Elton John duet from a distance in their brief, lazy "Crocodile Rock" music video.

"Frog Talk with Ashley Jensen" (1:46) gathers some thoughts from the Scottish actress, as well as video clips of her at work.
In the same vein is the Blu-ray exclusive "The Fawn of Darkness" (1:29) on Ozzy Osbourne's voicing of a lawn deer, who gets less screentime in the film than his semi-coherent rocker voice does here.

The extras conclude with an uncreative "music video" (1:32) for Nelly Furtado and Elton John's film-closing new recording of "Crocodile Rock." A mix of film and original animation is broken up by glimpses of recording studio footage.

The pitifully light, far-from-capacity DVD contains only "Elton Builds a Garden", "Frog Talk with Ashley Jensen", and the "Crocodile Rock" music video in the way of extras.

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for Winnie the Pooh, Spooky Buddies: The Curse of the Howlloween Hound, and The Lion King: Diamond Edition. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing repeats them, followed by ads for the Wii video game Epic Mickey, Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension, Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition, and The Fox and the Hound: 2 Movie Collection. The DVD contains all the same promos, though it skips repeating the disc-opening ones and adds a random Film Foundation promo advocating classic cinema restoration on Blu-ray.

Mankini Gnome and other red gnomes mostly stay still on the DVD main menu's pan across the lawn.

Preceded by a lawnmower race loading graphic, the Blu-ray menu pans across the lawns on both sides of the fence with changing character photos and reactive miniature gnomes. Beyond the DVD's virtually identical main menu, selection screens are static but scored.

Topped by an embossed cardboard slipcover (which adds a Gnomeo spine to the standard Juliet), the standard slim Blu-ray case places its discs on opposite sides, covering the colorless DVD with a Blu-ray promotional booklet, a Disney Movie Rewards code, and ad for a concurrent DVD debut and the most famous garden gnome travel marketing campaign.

Spoiler alert: "Gnomeo & Juliet" cheers up Shakespeare with a suicide-free happy ending.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though weak as far as major animated movies go, Gnomeo & Juliet is average compared to cinema at large. This kind of comedy is more expected of any other studio than the one that distributes Disney and Pixar animation, but I welcome the variety and Disney must appreciate the financial success that has eluded several of their riskier recent releases.

I could see this being a movie that gets repeat play in many households. At the same time, I can see this being a movie that kids grow out of enjoying. I don't foresee Gnomeo & Juliet as something passionately discussed years from now, the way that Disney's '90s movies and almost all of Pixar's films are today. And yet, there's enough diversion and mild subversion for anyone with interest to give this lawn gnome comedy a look.

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The Voice Cast of Gnomeo & Juliet:
James McAvoy: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe | Emily Blunt: Gulliver's Travels
Michael Caine: The Muppet Christmas Carol | Maggie Smith & Julie Walters: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Patrick Stewart: Bambi II | Matt Lucas: Alice in Wonderland (2010) | Stephen Merchant: Cemetery Junction

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Reviewed May 18, 2011.



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