To be or not to be original is a question that vexes modern storytellers. In the name of homage, filmmakers have updated Shakespearean characters into astronauts, Valley Girls and finger-snapping juvenile delinquents. But the Bard might spin a little less furiously in his grave if he saw the charming cartoon "Gnomeo & Juliet."
This love story between star-crossed garden gnomes retains enough of the playwright's pedigree to be smart and adds enough weird whimsy to be entertaining. Sprinkle the fairy dust of an Elton John soundtrack, and you've got an updated styling that's better behaved than "Tangled."
The Capulets and the Montagues are red-hatted and blue-hatted lawn ornaments in adjoining yards in contemporary Stratford-on-Avon, England. Like their oblivious human owners, the neighboring clans of walking, talking, tiny statues hate each other. Unlike the humans, the gnomes pelt each other with vegetables and race stolen lawn mowers.
But when guerrilla Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy) and ninja Juliet (voice of Emily Blunt) ascend a greenhouse roof to snatch a rare flower for their respective gardens, they fall in love.
As in the play, the lovers have enemies (Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as clan elders, Jason Statham as hothead Tybalt) and allies (Ashley Jensen as a frog nursemaid, Jim Cummings as a confessor flamingo). There's even a bronze William Shakespeare (Patrick Stewart) to insist that the story end unhappily. But this is a light-hearted kids movie, closer to the parody of "Shrek 2" (from the same director, Kelly Asbury) than to the peril of "Toy Story 3."
Because the characters are ceramic, they don't have the rambunctious physicality of cartoon animals, nor are they as emotionally expressive as Disney/Pixar creations. Yet the voice cast can compete with the best of them, and if the familiar songs don't add depth to the silly script, they do help make the kitsch surroundings seem iconic.
"Gnomeo & Juliet" stays too low to the ground to become an animated classic, but if there's a fairer midwinter's tale, wherefore art thou?