"Gnomeo & Juliet" doesn't have a single original idea in its pointy, ceramic head.
Spirited and brisk as this animated family film can be, its energy can't disguise the fact that it's an awkward mash-up of Shakespeare puns, hackneyed pop culture references and familiar Elton John songs, with one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink scripts cobbled together by committee. (Nine screenwriters receive credit, for those of you keeping score at home.)
The concept of yard gnomes acting out the tragic romance of "Romeo and Juliet" is clever enough — I mean, come on, who doesn't like yard gnomes? — but that's pretty much all this film from director Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2") is. Like "Snakes on a Plane," the title is the gag, and it tells you all you need to know.
And of course, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is in 3-D. There was never any question about that, was there? While adding a third dimension can provide an inspired sense of perspective and makes some of the details pop in a tactile way — the chips in the gnomes' paint, the smudges of dirt on their faces — it is, as always, unnecessary.
"Gnomeo & Juliet" does feature a strong voice cast, though, led by James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith, with cameos from the likes of Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan and Ozzy Osbourne. Some of the one-liners and visual bits hit their targets, but for the most part, reheated gags and sequences that recall earlier, better animated films are the norm.
The red and blue gnomes that live in the backyards of feuding next-door neighbors Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) and Miss Montague (Julie Walters) enjoy a secret, rich life when their human owners aren't around, full of jokes, games and lawnmower races — an idea that seemed innovative back in 1995 when the first "Toy Story" came out.
A Spanish-accented flamingo named Featherstone, who recalls his lost love, is reminiscent of a couple different movies; Jim Cummings' antic performance feels like Robin Williams' work in "Aladdin," and the flashback tracing the rise and fall of his romance feels like an inferior version of that gorgeous, gut-wrenching sequence at the beginning of "Up." A gaggle of smaller gnomes, who go everywhere together muttering to each other in cute little voices, recall the minions from "Despicable Me."
But "Gnomeo & Juliet" doesn't just mine previous animated fare. There's even a "Brokeback Mountain" reference — seriously, all these years later — as well as a gnome who sunbathes in a tacky, "Borat"-style thong. And the songs from Elton John — who's also an executive producer on the film, having worked for the past decade to get it made — seem wedged in, even though some of the lyrics have been tweaked slightly to fit the story.
Within this messy mix, we find the star-crossed love of Gnomeo (McAvoy), a blue gnome, and Juliet (Blunt), a red. They've long been taught to hate their enemies on the other side of the fence, but when they meet in neutral territory at another neighbor's backyard — in a greenhouse by moonlight in the film's loveliest, most effective sequence — they're instantly smitten and willing to ignore their clans' mutual animosity.
Ashley Jensen gets some laughs as Juliet's nurse, who's now a hopelessly romantic frog, while Jason Statham is a reliable tough guy, as always, as Tybalt. Meanwhile, Gnomeo enjoys a philosophical chat with a Shakespeare statue, voiced intelligently by Patrick Stewart.
The two talk about the possibility of a happy ending to this seemingly doomed love story. It's happy, sure — it has to be — but it's certainly not an improvement.