It’s not really Romeo and Juliet when the characters can come back to life with a lot of time and a little glue, and by the tone, this loosely adapted version starring lawn ornaments really, really understands that basic fact. If only Gnomeo & Juliet were as imaginative in poking the ribs of its central storyline as it is about developing the silly cuteness of its background characters, the movie might have been on to something.

The flippancy toward the source starts immediately, with a prologue in the form of a tiny garden gnome hopping (some can walk and otherwise move their limbs, while others can’t, depending on their importance to the plot) onto a stage and informing us that this story has been told before — after a perfect pause — a lot. Then there’s the old standby gag of a slowly approaching cane from the wings as the poor, little guy tries to actually get some Shakespeare into the movie.

Shakespeare is here, almost in physical form by way of a statue (voiced by Patrick Stewart — the only logical choice, really) and definitely in hokey references that range from groan-worthy (“Out, out,” a gnome yells at a dog trying to enter the gate of the garden, and the owner calls angrily, “Damn Spot!”) to a little clever (the homeowners live in a duplex with the address of 2B on Verona Drive — two mailboxes, one with the address crossed out) to a handful of direct quotes in somewhat the proper context. This is mostly, though, about how garden gnomes and their ceramic animal friends come to life and act out a mostly innocent blood feud.

The Montagues wear blue hats, and the Capulets wear red ones. Both families tend the yards of their respective owners, keeping still whenever humans are nearby. Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy) is the cocksure son of the Montague matriarch Lady Bluebury (voice of Maggie Smith), getting into lawnmower races with the red Tybalt (voice of Jason Statham) and other kinds of trouble. Juliet (voice of Emily Blunt) is kept, literally, on a pedestal by her overprotective father, Lord Redbrick (voice of Michael Caine), and her frog-shaped fountain nurse, Nanette (voice of Ashley Jensen).

She spots a rare orchid in the shape of a heart growing on a neighboring greenhouse, and after a failed attempt to vandalize the Capulet backyard, Gnomeo finds himself meeting Juliet. The two fall in love as orchestrated Elton John plays on the soundtrack (his songs and orchestrated versions thereof comprise all of the music).

The rest of the tale is familiar to anyone who has or hasn’t read the play, seen it on stage, or watched a movie adaptation (though an inordinate number of the latter believe “star-crossed” is a good thing to be), and the gaggle of screenwriters (Kelly Asbury, Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Andy Riley, and Steve Hamilton Shaw) condense the meat of the young lovers’ dialogue in montage and their interactions with a lovelorn plastic flamingo with an indeterminate accent named Featherstone (voice of Jim Cummings), who also gets a montage on how he came to be so lonely and one-legged.

There’s little in the way of imagination to Gnomeo and Juliet, save for an amusing summary of Juliet’s balcony soliloquy and the punch line (“Could you hear me this whole time?”). Instead, the real entertainment (apart from playing “Name That Voice,” which includes answers like Ozzy Osbourne and Hulk Hogan) comes from the members of the Montague and Capulet courts.

On the red team is a group of tiny gnomes like the one from the prologue, who speak in sycophantic squeaks — agreeing with their leaders even when one insults himself. On the blue side are some stone bunnies, exchanging messages in semaphore with their ears. The statue of Shakespeare insists it will all end in tears, although no one expects any story to end with a rampaging, state-of-the-art lawnmower with laser sights.

The movie is entirely harmless, and by that it can also be inferred that Gnomeo & Juliet is pretty humdrum stuff, too.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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