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Gnomeo & Juliet movie review

By Sean O'Connell
Friday, February 11, 2011; 9:19 AM

Think there are no other fresh ways to retell William Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet"?

Try this on for, well, size. Verona is out, replaced by a picturesque London suburb. And instead of a pair of star-crossed human lovers, let's consider feuding families of round-belly, knee-high, pointy hat wearing ceramic garden gnomes.

(Now that's how to lay a scene, Bill.)

In the animated "Gnomeo & Juliet," creator Kelly Asbury has discovered imaginative ways to freshen up the timeless material and introduce it to the next generation.

A narrating gnome admits at the onset that this story "has been told before . . . a lot," so plot details will be familiar. The neighboring yards, separated by a thin alley and a sturdy fence, belong to Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) and Miss Montague (Julie Walters), senior citizens whose petty personal feud has trickled down to their beloved gnomes.

Much like Buzz, Woody and the playthings in Andy's "Toy Story" bedroom, the gnomes of "Juliet" spring to life once their owners turn their backs. The Capulet figurines, clothed in red, have been raised to despise the blue-painted Montague clan, which causes all sorts of problems once blue Gnomeo (James McAvoy) falls cap-over-curly-toed-heels for red Juliet (Emily Blunt).

Asbury, whose animation credits include such Oscar-nominated productions as "Shrek 2" and "Beauty and the Beast," pays close attention to intimate details. "Gnomeo" honors its literary roots, cleverly weaving Shakespeare quotes and subtle references throughout its inventive action set pieces, most of which involve lawn mowers, sprinklers and tools the gnomes can access in their sheds.

But wait. Don't Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers commit suicide once they realize destiny plans to keep them apart? Well, sure, but - spoiler alert - "Gnomeo" has a less disastrous ending. Asbury seems more focused on perfecting the delicate clinking sound his gnomes make every time they run, clap hands or hug than he is in religiously hewing to Shakespeare's source material.

In fact, "Gnomeo" draws just as much inspiration from 1970s classic rock as it does from Shakespeare's play. Muzak versions of Elton John's greatest hits, from "Rocket Man" to "Tiny Dancer," underlay most of Asbury's action. The singer executive-produced "Gnomeo," and also penned original tunes for the movie's soundtrack. Asbury's use of John's compositions can be hit and miss, though. The "Your Song" medley doesn't hold a candle in the wind to a similarly romantic sequence from Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" It's tough not to chuckle, however, as chanting gnomes swap the name "Gno-me-o" where we'd normally sing "Sat-ur-day" in John and Bernie Taupin's booze-and-brawling anthem, "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)."

But John's not the only Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in the inspired "Juliet" ensemble. While the bulk of Asbury's vocal casting is spot on - from Michael Caine as distinguished Lord Redbrick to Patrick Stewart as a bronze Bill Shakespeare statue - no choice is more bold, crazy, unexpected but ultimately inspired as the selection of Ozzy Osbourne. Wherefore art thou, Prince of Darkness? Any film that dares to cast the bat-chewing heavy-metal legend as a gentle, ceramic reindeer named Fawn is okay in my Bard book.

weekend@washpost.com O'Connell is a freelance reviewer.

G. At area theaters. Contains nothing objectionable. 84 minutes.

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