The plays of William Shakespeare have long been the go-to source for adaptations. Some plays, like Julius Caesar, can be treated as historical drama. Others can transcend their original setting and be placed in almost any setting, with Romeo and Juliet as the exemplar. Romeo and Juliet has been adapted as written, transplanted in time as in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, as an action movie with Romeo Must Die, as science fiction with Romie-0 and Julie-8, as a ballet, as a musical with West Side Story, and even animated, as in the aforementioned Romie-0 and Julie-8. This one play could sustain several months’ worth of columns here at /Lost in Translation/ on its own. If you go back to The Nature of Remakes, I brought up the idea that remakes and adaptations should bring something new to the work. Gnomeo & Juliet is not the first animated version of the play, nor is it the first musical.
What it does bring is garden gnomes.
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and is typically the first that high school students run into in English classes. The play tells the story of the star-cross’d lovers whose love runs into the feud between their families. Shakespearean tragedies tend to have a body count, and Romeo and Juliet is no exception, albeit having a small number of deaths. Two notable deaths, though, are the title lovers, thus turning the play into a tragedy.
Gnomeo & Juliet, though, is an animated film meant for family viewing. Family fare of late, though, avoids death, especially of the lead characters*. Characters are allowed to be in danger, even in mortal peril, but a “happily ever after” ending is the rule, not the exception. However, older family members may be familiar with Romeo and Juliet as they watch. There are expectations. How does Gnomeo & Juliet fare?
The movie starts with one of the gnome chorus introducing the film, saying that the story has been, “one that has been told. A lot.” Right away, the movie itself is aware that /Romeo and Juliet/ is the most adapted of Shakespeare’s plays. But, the gnome continues, “We’re going to tell it again, but in a different way.” Fair notice that the movie isn’t going to be faithful. However, the gnome then starts with the prologue from the play, ending only when the stage’s trap door opens underneath. The line that got interrupted? “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”
The story takes place in the gardens of Ms. Montague, who lives at 2B Verona Drive, and Mr. Capulet, of Not 2B Verona Drive. The Blues, ruled by Gnomeo’s mother Lady Bluebury, maintain Ms Montague’s garden. The Reds, bitter rivals to the Blues, are led by Lord Redbrick, Juliet’s father, and keep Mr. Capulet’s garden in top shape. Gnomeo, who is a combination of Mercutio and Romeo from the play, first appears in a lawnmower race against Tybalt. The race goes to Tybalt, who wins through a low blow. Meanwhile, Juliet is being kept safe by her father and is chafing to get off the pedestal, metaphorically and literally. With help from her confidante, a ceramic frog named Nanette, taking the role of the nurse from the play, Juliet sneaks out to recover a flower in an abandoned yard. Romeo, too, sneaks out, meaning to exact revenge on Tybalt but is distracted by a figure in the moonlight.
For a movie promising to tell the tale differently, it does follows the play. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet appears and, while not in the same language, it does carry the same sentiment, the pull between duty to family and desire for the young gnome. The feud escalates, leading to the smashing of Tybalt during a fight with Gnomeo and Gnomeo’s exile. It’s only when Gnomeo runs into a statue of William Shakespeare is the audience told the movie isn’t beholden to the play. Even then, the destruction of Juliet’s pedestal by the Terrafirminator while Gnomeo was trying to free her was big enough for good old Bill to shout, “I told you so!”
Gnomeo & Juliet is an odd movie. It bounced from Disney to Miramax to finally Starz Entertainment before getting the green light. With music by executive producer Elton John, expectations were mixed. At the same time, the casting was both inspired and eclectic. The title characters were played by James McAvoy, a Shakespearean actor, and Emily Blunt. Maggie Smith, another Shakespearean actor, voiced Lady Bluebury, and Michael Caine provided his talents as Lord Redbrick. Patrick Stewart, also Shakespearean, played the statue of William Shakespeare. Adding to the cast, we have Jason Statham as Tybalt, Ashley Jensen as Nanette, Matt Lucas as Benny**, the counterpart to Benvolio from the play, Jim Cummings as Featherstone, a plastic flamingo, Ozzy Osbourne as Fawn, taking the role of Peter in the play, Dolly Parton as Dolly Gnome, who started the first lawnmower race, and Hulk Hogan as the Terrafirminator Announcer. Add in the gnome chorus working for Lord Redbrick and the ceramic bunnies*** helping Lady Bluebury, and the casting is impressive.
As an adaptation, Gnomeo & Juliet is a little loose with the original, though it does hit the major points of the play up to when the movie says it’s deviating. The biggest change is in tone; the original tragedy is turned into a musical comedy. Yet, there are moments when the original play shines through to add drama. The beats of Romeo and Juliet are still in the movie, and the survival of the leads does become doubtful.
Gnomeo & Juliet did well enough at the theatres that a sequel has been announced. Gnomeo & Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes will introduce the world’s greatest detecting ceramic gnome consultant to solve a mystery haunting the families.
Next week, Super Mario Bros.
* There are exceptions, but they are rare.
** Benny did indeed have a scene where “Benny and the Jets” played. The scene was related to the plot.
*** When the feud breaks out into open warfare, the bunnies paint themselves blue like the extras in Braveheart.