“Gnomeo and Juliet” delivers some much-needed cinematic joy

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy

This February has been quite the month for love and William Shakespeare. The recent children’s film Gnomeo and Juliet, produced by Elton John and directed by Kelly Asbury (of Shrek franchise fame), has been killing at the box office for the last month. The combination of Shakespeare and John’s pop culture collateral clearly makes for a pleasurable and profitable experience. The film brought in $25 million in its opening weekend and has grossed nearly $56 million to date, according to BoxOfficeMojo.

This film wants nothing more that to be a sumptuous cinematic experience. The animation is absolutely stunning, particularly in the realistic texturizing of the clay gnomes. The evidence of wear that each unique figure possesses in the form of chipped paint or a broken hats reveals their individuality and experience in the world of the red and blue gardens, almost like scars on the battle-weary soldier. The detailed texture of the gnomes contrasts nicely with the animated naturalism of the flora, the manufactured materiality of the plastic flamingo, Featherstone, and the racing lawn mowers. In this way the film works to rewrite the domestic imagery of the English suburbs with an accessible life all of their own.

The production budget for the visual aspects of this film was surely rivaled by that for the voice actors and soundtrack. It is simply bursting with glitterati voice actors from across the pond, including Michael Caine, James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Jim Cummings, and Maggie Smith. Ozzy Osbourne plays a lovingly deranged garden fawn, Hulk Hogan advertises Terrafirminator (an atomic lawn mower whose name I just love), and even Dolly Parton makes a cameo appearance as a busty gnome all her own. This is not to mention the Elton John-infused soundtrack, which adapts his biggest hits for the occasion. Even if it is a bit heavy-handed with its use of “Crocodile Rock,” the music and cameos as well as the numerous cultural references (I even spotted a Brokeback Mountain quip in there) makes the film, like Toy Story and Shrek, equally fun for parents and their kids.

In fact, the only controversial part of the film has to do with its use of the Shakespearean source material. It makes due homage to the form with a cute opening scene of a gnome attempting the original prologue. There is also an interesting moment where Gnomeo (James McAvoy) debates with a statue of the Bard (Sir Patrick Stewart) over the ending of the original Romeo and Juliet. Gnomeo hates the sad ending, and so is reinvigorated to take action and change his. Stewart clearly takes no small amount of glee in the tongue-in-cheek part. However, this funny little moment isn’t entirely necessary to the plot, and seems to try to do due deference to the angry purists by situating itself in the continuum of adaptations of this ever-perennial play.

I actually liked this little move as it illustrates a very valid question implicitly posed by the film: Who has the authority to rewrite Shakespeare? The remark is often made that Romeo and Juliet is a comedy until Tybalt gets killed, and then the tragic structure takes hold. This film, like the play itself, tempts us to imagine both the potential grief and the potential joy of equally viable alternate realities. The film does not shirk from the consequences of danger, suggesting that a gnome who is entirely smashed is really dead; There is a long hold on Juliet’s demolished pedestal, suggesting that she and Gnomeo may too have met a tragic end.

While Shakespeare may have chosen a tragic course, this film chooses a comedic one in accordance with their target audience and financial goals. The acknowledgement of both tragic and comic potential outcomes, and the valorization of individual agency to influence those outcomes, reveals a fundamental difference between a Renaissance worldview and our own. Furthermore, it makes for a lush and pleasurable retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story with a few happy surprises along the way.

  • This film is currently playing in most major UK and US theaters, but check here for international release dates.

Slow and steady “Macbeth” wins the race

This past week PBS aired director Rupert Goold’s filmic imagining of Macbeth, part of the Great Performances series and the companion piece to the earlier Hamlet, both featuring Patrick Stewart. The production was nearly three hours long: a very pragmatic exposition, Stewart developed slowly a sane and considered Macbeth who sparked with madness rather than worked up to it as in a crescendo. I wonder if the successful stage production also took the near three-hour duration, as the film did not take advantage of the creative act that is adaptation (and abbreviation), which, on the other hand, meant the film really trusted audiences to stick with it despite the slow exposition.

The characterization of the weird sisters typically sets the tone for a production of Macbeth. In recent adaptations over the last few years we have seen bin men, traditional mystics, and now WWII-era nurses with semi-monastic habits. Their presence in the film–as food servers, nurses, in the morgue, or performing their supernatural obligations–is ubiquitous and threaded throughout nearly all the ensemble scenes. Their presence, like Macbeth’s madness and the influence of fate, is everywhere and at all times. This clever “threading” of the witches throughout the production threw into relief Macbeth as an individual, his skill as a leader as well as his ever-present conscience.

The magnification of Macbeth as a character somewhat overwhelmed the ensemble’s cohesion, which was one of the strongest qualities of the recent PBS Hamlet. This production was clearly one earmarked for Stewart–a directorial choice that cuts both ways. It provided Stewart with some much-deserved space for moments of virtuosity, but also meant we had to deal with his character for nearly the entire film, solid, which does get wearisome. I was confused initially with his casting: Stewart turns 70 this year, and while the final scenes displayed muscles that matched a worn professional soldier’s might, his delivery was that of an older, more patient, more considered man. This may also have been my conditioning to more youthful casting choices for a play that does not require really one or the other. Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) thankfully wrought a powerful performance that balanced his deliberateness with a sense of force, sensuality, and passion.

The most interesting choice on Goold’s part for the production was the continual emphasis on food, another visual element that worked its way into nearly every scene somehow (and when not, different kinds of appetites were definitely at the fore). This is true for two scenes in particular. First, Macbeth makes a sandwich while he gives his orders to the two murders as to how they shall murder MacDuff and his son, Fleance. At the end he shares the sandwich with the murders, presenting a dramatic contrast between the mundane (of making lunch) and the extraordinary (killing an entire family). During the Dinner Scene–positioned as the catharsis of the play for this rendering–the camera also focused on the fleshy food and red wine that the ghost of Banquo has to maneuver as he walks across the table towards Macbeth. The use of food, especially in terms of luxury and gluttony, highlights one of the central premises of the play: namely, the confusing or mistaking of the natural, ordinary, and predictable for the supernatural.

While a strong and thoughtful performance, a viewer has to be completely committed to watching it, at times more for Goold and Stewart’s execution rather than entertainment or pleasure. Knowing, this, the production is absolutely worth the watch, particularly for its unique version of Macbeth as a central character and the repositioning of traditional production emphases. One could even call this a radical Macbeth as a production opting for the thoughtful rather than the razzel-dazzle.

  • Watch this film online in its entirety at PBS’s Great Performances website.
  • This film is also available for purchase in its standard DVD and Blu-Ray formats.

UPDATE 12 OCTOBER 2010: You can now also watch the really interesting interview with Patrick Stewart that aired immediately after the production online as well (which I have included below).