“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.

A “Hamlet” inspired by MUSE

This is the second musically-driven production this fall for the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW): the production is shaped by director Emily Murdoch’s MUSE play-list, meant to echo particular themes and ideas in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The soundtrack’s overwhelming and melodramatic orchestrations contrasted productively against the stripped-down performance space of the University Place Christian Church basement, mirroring the stark Denmark environment’s contrast to the depth, vitality, and stoic modernity of Hamlet’s emotions. The ensemble also reaffirmed there commitment to interesting stagings and use of unconventional spaces.

The troupe played to their strength of using unassuming spaces in interesting ways for staging purposes. The church basement is a wide and sanitized space; there is something perfect about the sparse, dingy, and whitewashed hall, entirely without ornamentation that implies a Denmark rotten in more ways than one. When I first entered, I found it odd that the chairs were arranged facing away from the grade school-esque proscenium stage, and were instead facing a large door frame at the back of the room topping three small steps with a utilitarian “EXIT” sign overhead. Using the back of the hall rather than the front allowed the actors to move about more freely and to establish hierarchy and reinforce power exchanges with the subtle use of steps. The large double-doors–always opened–were framed by two unremarkable casement-like windows, which provided the right amount of division during episodes of spying and asides, such as bedroom seen where Hamlet confronts Gertrude, Polonius spies from these windows. In a brilliant stroke of space adaptation, Hamlet stabs this “rat” between the space where the door is hinged to the wall. This particular audience was very active, laughing hard and often at the moments that allowed for it, which appropriately matched the very bodily production. In her anguish, a sweet and cheeky Ophelia (Kelsey Pigg) drops hard her book of religious devotions, conveying a surprising degree of frustration and interiority.

There are many hearty hugs between Hamlet (Jacob Lessing) and Horatio (Brittany Gerke). Hamlet tastefully falls to the ground with a heavy thud for his “rogue and peasant slave” speech (2.2), again as a display of frustration not overwrought as this is only done once despite his many soliloquies and opportunities to do so. Like the set, the cast seemed to work with the basic premises of their character’s roles in the world and build from there. Gertrude (Liana Alcantara) is notable for wearing her anxiety and tension in her face–a difficult skill to master even for professionals–that portrayed a little-spoke maternal and confused mother rather than one tied up in her queenly status. Polonius (Erik Allgood) was down-graded to goofball royal adviser, but with an “Office“-type twist. Wearing giant hipster glasses complemented by suspenders, his hurried managerial delivery really struck a funny-bone with this audience while maintaining the hint of malice and self-interest. This method was not lost on Hamlet either, played as the loyal young man too smart and too thoughtful for his own good, beleaguered by inaction.

This production presents a sense of artistic cohesion in its minimalist approach, not only in the set and staging choices, but in the students’ approach to character. In fact, the only point of excess was the MUSE soundtrack, which worked as an aural aesthetic balancing device. Hamlet is a character upset and pissed off from the very opening of this play, and often it is hard as an audience member to register emotionally the extent and stakes of his anger. As an emotionally capricious play that transitions between scenes of slapstick and others of death and drama, the soundtrack threaded through the production as a stabilizing force, resulting in a rare sense of cohesion and clarity at it’s end. The group’s final production this semester will be Moliere’s Tartuffe, the French impostor comedy, to be held at the same locale with hopefully sinilar interesting and unconventional results.