There is an innate prejudice against animated film which comes from the roots of their inception. With the appearance of Walt Disney, and Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, the format has long been considered the province of children, films to take the kids to or – in our modern world – something to play repeatedly to distract them. But with the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Pixar and Brad Bird, the animated film no longer deserves that ghetto, and when films like The King’s Speech and The Fighter are being lauded as some of the best of the year, it’s hard to argue that they have more going on beneath the surface than Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon. That’s not a knock against any of those movies, but we’re not dealing with Ingmar Bergman here – these are all crowd pleasers of different varieties. And yet this bias exists.
Then again, this is a movie website, and we’ve seen the polar opposite thought process from many webmasters and patrons who champion animated films – or films that are meant for children – as great art, if not the greatest art. I feel somewhere in the middle, in that I recognize there are a number of great animated films that are that can trump the false importance of certain movies. But, at the same time, we live in a culture that is filled with adults who have troubles letting go of childish things, and that are happy to be infantilized – which makes me more in the favor of treating animation less seriously. And I shouldn’t. Like most things, the truth is in the middle. The sadder truth is that Hollywood has little interest these days in making works of art that deserve place alongside such thoughtful endeavors as Taxi Driver or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or what have you, and so animation is often the most interesting and creative mainstream cinema. And I would buy the argument that Up is as deserving a lofty position among them for its ability to address loss and aging in an adult way. While also animation is pound for pound some of the best written Hollywood films – partly because few animated films feel as bloated as most spectacle entertainment.
But the reason why many critics (self included) find it hard to take animation as more than the province of children is because of films like Gnomeo and Juliet.
Based on the William Shakespeare play (though the film has nine other credited writers), Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a cocksure (rocksure?) garden gnome who lives with his fellow blue gnomes in their backyard, where they are constantly at war the next door family of red gnomes. The Red’s are headed up by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), and have Tybalt (Jason Statham) as their lead hooligan. Redbrick has a daughter in Juliet (Emily Blunt), to which he and Juliet’s nursemaid Nanette (Ashley Jensen) are incredibly protective. But she sees a special flower in an abandoned yard, and since both sides love their gardens, she goes to steal it in the night in camouflage. As does Gnomeo, and there begins the story that anyone who’s graduated high school, or dated /is a person who loves Leonardo Di Caprio should be more than familiar with.
One of the great things about William Shakespeare is that he’s so encased in being a great classic writer that he doesn’t get enough credit for being dirty and (in modern times) subversive. Romeo and Juliet is about two horny teenagers who desperately want to fuck, and then react to their separation and all that as melodramatically as possible – eventually killing themselves (spoiler). Of course their deaths are at the service of a message that Edwin Starr made plain. Stupid rivalries, and an eye for an eye thinking leads to unhappiness and all that. Shakespeare was a very smart man, and his work still offers treasures. Something that can not be said for this film.
Gnomeo tells this story but offers no depth, glosses over anything remotely resembling anything more than barely-above-chaste sexuality, and the end credits remove the threat of the one violent act that happens in the movie. This is interesting to me because the film seems at odds with the very nature of Garden Gnomes. Many characters jump and swing and do all sorts of things that are antithetical to smart cement-based living. I found myself cringing for characters as they would do impossible stunts knowing their fragility, but this seems a byproduct not of intention. Similarly I found myself wondering with all this talk of lineage and relations that nothing in the real world suggests garden gnomes can breed, so it becomes interesting to a point. In Toy Story there is a sense of romance, but never real sex. Here, like with Cars, I was left curious and slightly distracted by the sexual connotations of the story. Because this is about a fight between red and blue gnomes, and there are accusations of color-based prejudice, I also found myself (whilst bored) substituting racial epithets for either color. It at least kept me slightly more engaged.
Ultimately this isn’t a very good movie, but like Douglas Adams said of Earth, it’s mostly harmless. The problem is that it’s filled with all sorts of stupid jokes and puns that seem to be for adults who are stupid. Probably the best gag is that there’s a bad ass lawnmower named the “Terra Firma-nator,” and there’s a sequence where Stephen Merchant’s Baxter-character Paris sings Elton John to Juliet. But with so many credited writers, it’s like the antithesis of the old joke about monkeys with typewriters writing Hamlet.
I think part of that is that there are a number of schools of animation, and where Pixar (and with some prodding Dreamworks of late) start with a solid script, many animated movies are written by the animators who pitch scenes and sequences. Some of these people are talented but it often gives these films a connected set-piece tone, like a game of improv, where the narrative is passed from person to person trying to continue the story while also putting their own spin on it. Unfortunately, they have a really good backbone to start with but never treat it all that seriously. There is a sequence where a flamingo recounts losing his partner to a divorce that is affecting – though terribly derivative of a similar sequence in Toy Story 2 – but there is little else that works here. Side note: at the end the Flamingo orders a new partner off the internet, so he gets a mail order bride, I guess.
The other thing that makes this somewhat palatable – besides playing “guess the famous actor voicing so and so” (which speaks to the stunt casting aesthetic and works against these sorts of movies for adults) – is the music by Elton John. From the full use in a lawnmower race of “Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting)” to a brief use of “Benny and the Jets” you have a soundtrack that makes something like this easy enough to swallow. But, to tie this all in, animated films have gotten better than this sort of programmer. And those films have ruined the grading curve for something this inelegant.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars