In the grand tradition of "there's nothing wrong with that," 'Gnomeo & Juliet' is by far the "gayest" animated movie that Disney has ever made. Accurately described by my considerably more complimentary colleague Silas Lesnick as an "ode to tackiness," the film is a subversive celebration of gay culture disguised as Technicolor family fare, an object lesson in tolerance that will probably resonate more deeply with parents than with the kids they're accompanying to the multiplex. But even though its portrayal of chintz is meant to be more playful than pejorative, 'Gnomeo & Juliet' is too clichéd and clumsily assembled to provide any insight, much less entertainment value to anyone except the rarified demographic of moviegoers that automatically finds garden gnomes charming.
Offering a necessarily more cheerful and self-aware but basically straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare's classic play, the film chronicles the burgeoning romance that evolves between Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt), the centerpiece ceramics of the gardens to two embattled English neighbors. Although one human horticulturalist is named Montague and the other Capulet, the conflict between the actual gnomes is rendered more simplistically in terms of Red and Blue clans. But like their owners, the Reds and Blues have been embroiled in a conflict too long to remember the reasons why, while the two star-crossed romantics are torn between their sense of loyalty and the growing love they have for one another.
Meanwhile, beefed up to offer muscular lawn mower races and even a meta-textual appearance by a shockingly literate statue of Shakespeare himself, the film indulges in a variety of contemporary blockbuster conventions in its interpretation of this classic text, culminating in a conclusion which, suffice it to say, doesn't have enough courage to commit to the source material's downbeat sense of finality.
Although the core of the love story in 'Gnomeo & Juliet' is somewhat obviously centered around male and female characters –- which still seems vaguely creepy to consider, given that the closest thing to "logical" reproduction these characters could experience would most closely resemble the diminishing returns of Russian nesting dolls -– from start to finish, the film is seeded with the iconography and even language of gay culture. Two gnomes literally attached at the ankle remark to one another, "I wish I could quit you;" a forlorn lawn flamingo says that "others' hate destroyed my love" when recounting his separation from his lost partner; and perhaps most conspicuously, Elton John not only composes a couple of corny new songs but cannibalizes his back catalog in order to provide a score for the film.
Notwithstanding a couple of howlingly crass recontextualizations of John's classic pop songs, none of these reference-cum-punch lines are particularly distracting from the main thrust of the narrative. But they are weirdly, conspicuously out of place in a film that feels expressly designed for a kid-heavy audience: neither the colorful concept nor the story itself seems particularly unique or appealing to adults. All of which conjures the questions, who are these jokes for? And maybe more importantly, what's the point of them? There are certainly more potent pop culture references the film could have made without creating an oddball, distracting throughline of gay or at least gay-adjacent humor.
But not only does this aspect of the film feel particularly incongruous, its frequent tonal shifts and sometimes literally disproportionate digressions from the film's forbidden romance –- such as when Gnomeo finds himself being carried the equivalent of a continent in gnome dimensions across town –- never come together to give the audience any cohesive or measurable emotional engagement with the material.
Is it messed up how cruel Jason Statham's character Tybalt is to Matt Lucas' Benny? Absolutely. Is it sad that a bitter human divorce separated a pink flamingo from his partner? Sure. But contextualized with the absurdity of garden gnomes, the logistics of whose 'Toy Story'-esque secret lifestyle never makes much sense, it never seems clear how seriously we're supposed to take all of this business. If the climax of 'Toy Story 3' serves as the high-water mark for animated pathos, the stakes of this film's diesel-fueled finale feel about as dire as a theme-park reenactment of the same sequence.
Ultimately, however, this film fails on the merits of its concept more than anything else. It's not incongruities like pop-gay references or procreative habits that make it a failure; comparatively speaking, there's nothing wrong with any of that. It's that there's so much wrong with everything else in 'Gnomeo & Juliet' that its ostensibly important message of tolerance doesn't seem particularly smart or subversive; and it's still the only part of the whole movie that actually works.