Monday, February 14, 2011

West Side Toy Story? My Gnomeo and Juliet Review

How do you review a movie that you've been waiting four years to see? My perception is drastically screwed up, I know that. Do I review it for the Shakespeare? It won't hold up well, we already know that. Do I ignore the Shakespeare and review it as a generic kids' movie? We all know I can't very well do that :).

Let's start with the Shakespeare, then, shall we? Just how much of the story is kept? For about the first half or so, it's not bad. There's the blue Montagues (led by mum Lady Blueberry), and the red Capulets (led by Lord Redbrick). Gnomeo is the hero of the blue team, along with his best pal "Benny" and a dog-like Shroom as their pet. There is no Mercutio character. For the red side we have Redbrick's daughter Juliet, literally stuck up on a pedestal by her overprotective father, and troublemaker Tybalt, who thankfully is not double cast as the love interest for Juliet (like we see in Sealed With A Kiss).

There's the inevitable demonstration of how the blues and reds dislike each other - in this case, taking the form of a lawnmower race. There's a meeting between Gnomeo and Juliet over a rare orchid, where they've both disguised themselves and therefore have no idea the others...ahem...true colors. From that point they play a bit more fast and loose with the story - there's a duel, someone gets hurt, Paris shows up to court Juliet, Gnomeo gets banished (in a way)...blah blah blah no surprise if I tell everybody they tack on a happy ending.

In between they add some characters (Tybalt has a posse? and who is this Featherstone supposed to be?), reduce the animosity between the families to a straight-up revenge story (red attacks blue, blue retaliates and attacks red, red steps it up...) and at one point I thought they were going to take a stab at explaining the history of the feud, but instead they threw in this random other love story that had nothing to do with Shakespeare's original.

The animation is quite good - perhaps even too good? These are garden gnomes. They are made out of cement, or plaster, or whatever it is you make a gnome out of. As such they are chipped and scratched and dirty. Nice attention to detail, but... the stars of your show are chipped and scratched and dirty. You know? There's a musical montage that shows both Gnomeo and Juliet going through a lengthy cleaning before one of their meetings, and I thought afterward we'd see them all shiny and new - nope. Best I could tell there was no change in their appearance at all.

Like all Shakespeare-ish stories, they drop in a boatload of random Shakespeare quotes and references. At the beginning I really and truly had hope for a minute when Gnomeo comes out with "Red? I hate the word..." which I recognized as a spin on Tybalt's like "Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee." If they'd sprinkled multiple random Romeo and Juliet quotes like that throughout the play? I would have loved it.

A couple of times they try - the "neutral ground" where Gnomeo and Juliet meet is referred to as "The Old Lawrence Place" for example. But mostly it's made painfully clear that the writer of this particular film had little more than a high school knowledge of Shakespeare - probably about a C+ knowledge, at that. The only quotes you should expect to find are the generic ones like "To be or not to be", "Let slip the dogs of war", and "Out damned spot." There's a completely random Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reference, too. There are more quotes from other plays than from Romeo and Juliet.

It's disappointing that they reduce the story to "revenge". I wasn't kidding about that writer's C+ in English. Tybalt screams it. Lady Blueberry (Romeo's mum) screams it. Even Benny, you know, Benvolio? The peacemaker? Yeah, picture him screaming "Revenge!!!" as he charges the Capulets. It just don't work. I don't mean they talk about revenge, or they act in a vengeful way - I mean that each of those characters at one point or another utters the phrase "Revenge!" We get it. You think Romeo and Juliet is a revenge story. It's not.

As for the movie itself, if we step aside from the Shakespeare a bit, I suppose it's.... ok. It's almost an Elton John vanity project. His songs are sprinkled in (and he even makes a cameo) with no real rhyme or reason. They named a character Benny, for Pete's Sake, but there's no "Benny and the Jets." There's a crazy amount of celebrity voices. Dolly Parton is carted out for the same old "big boobs" joke that I thought we stopped making when Johnny Carson quit the Tonight Show. Ozzy Osborne plays the part of a deer (one of Tybalt's posse), but for no discernible reason. He's not a personality, he's just a voice. Hulk Hogan does a tv commercial. It's as if (and I'm not the first reviewer to point this out), Elton called in a bunch of connections and said "Hey, do a voice for my new cartoon." So they each phoned in a few minutes. But they add nothing to the final product. I mean, come on - there's LADY GAGA SONG on the soundtrack! Hasn't anybody heard what happens when that woman releases a new song? The world goes insane. It just happened this past week. But yet here's this tiny little animated movie where she's singing an original song, and no buzz about that at all. They could have led with that in the marketing and gotten some traction.

A quick word on the whole "Toy Story" thing. It's not. It doesn't even try to be. Short of 2 or 3 silly "People coming, turn back into a statue!" scenes, the real people play no part at all in this story. If the writers could have figured out a way to put together an army of garden gnomes without any humans, I'm sure they could have done it and the movie would not have changed in the least.

The funniest part of the movie, by far, is Patrick Stewart as a statue of William Shakespeare. One of the characters actually gets into a debate with Shakespeare over the relative merits of the "doomed" ending versus the happy ending. I thought Stewart must have had an absolute ball with this one as his Shakespeare joyously taunts that the story can only end tragically:

"I suppose I could have Romeo arrive in time ....nope, nope, I much prefer the both dead version."

My kids tell me that this was their favorite part as well. Whether it's actually the funniest part, or if it's just because we know our Shakespeare, who knows. But it was quite welcome.

Ok, I have to wrap this up eventually. I will give credit and acknowledge that despite their silly puns, this version did not stoop to the dreaded "wherefore" means "where" joke. Phew. HOWEVER, they did commit two cardinal sins - "Shakespeare is boring" and "Our ending is better." I suppose I just have to grit my teeth over that for the moment, because much of the audience probably agrees. But to me, making references like that clearly says that you do not have any respect (or understanding!) of the source material, and that's a crying shame. Go ahead and make a movie based on a Shakespeare play, but do it because you love the source material and want to pay homage, not because you actually think that you can improve it. You can't.

Should you go see it? Sure, why not. It's got funny bits. My kids laughed, and not just at the Shakespeare. There's nothing especially wrong with it. I just think there was a great deal of potential that went unused. They could have kept much tighter to the story and still put a happy spin on the ending. Heck, they could have gone all meta with it, like Shakespeare in Love, and played out their own story as a parallel to the superior original, rather than doing this half-and-half job they did do.

I'm brutally torn over the whole "do we want to support projects like this?" question. I want Shakespeare stories for kids. Absolutely. But if I say to support a movie like this am I putting my vote behind cannibalizing the stories as the producers see fit? Is there any chance that the success of this movie would cause somebody to say "Hey, maybe we can make another story with even more Shakespeare in it?" That, is the question.


JM said...

Is there nothing new under the sun when it comes to the world of marketing?

I wouldn't be so ready to excuse them for their "C+" knowledge of Shakespeare. I think ignorance might have less to do with it than one might suppose.
Nahum Tate's 1608 happy ending version of Lear, lauded by none other than Samuel Johnson himself, endured for over 150 years as "better" than what Shakespeare actually wrote. And Garrick (1717-1779) re-wrote, to great acclaim, the entire ending of Romeo and Juliet, inserting two pages of his own badly composed iambic pentameter. These are just a couple of many historical examples.
The intention is always --need I say it again--ALWAYS to SELL what works better according to popular notion. Which is why I'm always so hesitant to have truck with what's "popular"; especially, as you might surmise, when it comes to Shakespeare.

JM said...

typo correction: Sorry, that's Tate's 1680 version not 1608.

CRS said...

I think if we want to want to make a "feel good" Shakespearean adaptation for children, we should stick with the romantic comedies. Many of them have been (to varying degrees) successfully adapted and aimed towards the 12-16 year old set.

I don't see how Shakespeare tragedies can be adapted for children without drastically altering them. I'm surprised that anybody thought Romeo and Juliet is more appropriate for children than, say, Macbeth or King Lear.

I can't imagine what the Disney version of Macbeth would look like, but I find Romeo and Juliet to be equally dark and disturbing as Macbeth.

I know this is where you and I differ. I wouldn't want my child walking around taking about suicide, even if it's "To be or not to be". I just think that some art is meant for adults, and we do our children a disservice by watering it down so they can enjoy it earlier.

That is not to say that all children's art must be slapstick humor. Adults use art to explore the feelings of fear, grief and injustice in a safe environment; and I think kids can handle that too. I just think that a child's sense of fear (and grief, and injustice) comes from a different place than ours. Mortality is not a child's concern.

A.O. Scott explored this idea very eloquently in his review of the "Where the Wild Things Are" movie:

"The impulse to protect children from these kinds of stories is understandable. Like adults, they experience plenty of hard feelings in their daily lives — at home, on the playground, in the classroom, in their dreams — and they may want, as we do, to use movies and books as a form of escape. Bright colors, easy lessons and thrilling rides that end safely and predictably on terra firma have their place. But so, surely, do representations of the grimmer, thornier thickets of experience. That’s what art is, and surely our children deserve some of that too."

So I say if we want to make Shakespeare's tragedies speak to children, then certainly we must be tactful, but we must respect the purpose of the source material. To turn a tragedy into a comedy is nothing less than travesty.

Duane said...

You're right, CRS, we do disagree :). To simplify the argument down to its core, it comes down to this - a tragedy tells us that we can't learn a lesson until something irreversible happens, namely that people get dead. Am I wrong in summarizing Romeo and Juliet that way? It's a story about stupid parents who don't see the error of their ways until their kids are dead and it's too late to change.

Is that really the only message that we're allowed to show children? What exactly happens if it turns out that Romeo and Juliet don't die? Is it thus impossible for the parents to learn their lesson? I grant that it's no longer a tragedy if we change it like that, but who cares, we're talking about a children's version.

The argument seems to always come down to "If you make it a happy ending, it's ruined." As JM points out, that's hardly true - people have been attempting to rewrite the ending for hundreds of years, and sometimes audiences prefer it. In general I prefer not to muck with the master's work, however. Not because it can't necessarily be improved (after all, wasn't he just improving existing stories?), but because I can't point to another person and say "You. Yes, you. You are able to improve on Shakespeare."

JM said...

The real danger is that if the impression left is that someone's perverted rendering IS Shakespeare, or the claim that it's better than Shakespeare is believed--what then? If people of the 17th--19th centuries can be convinced (which they were) that what they were being given WAS Shakespeare, what are the possibilities for the dissemination of gross misinformation now that they're exponentially increased through the media manipulations of some powerhouse like Disney? Our version is "better than Shakespeare"?
Things like this don't happen in one fell swoop, but are gradual and encroaching. It took years to convince our youth that Shakespeare is "stupid". We don't need some "Mickey Mouse" marketing moguls--sorry--couldn't resist:) reinforcing that notion in a very big way.

CRS said...

The argument seems to always come down to "If you make it a happy ending, it's ruined."

I haven't said that. I said if you turn a tragedy into a slapstick comedy you underestimate the children it's aimed at, and do them a disservice.

Children don't need a death at the end of a tragedy, because mortality is an adult fear. There may be other messages in the tragedies they can handle, but why throw them all out the window by making a comedy?

I am also saying that some Shakespeare has no relevance to children, and should be preserved for them until it does. Do you disagree with that statement entirely, or just that it includes Romeo and Juliet?

Duane said...

True, CRS, I wasn't intending to summarize your argument, just my own personal experience with the "making Shakespeare safe for children" argument - namely, make a happy ending and everybody wins.

I agree that if you make it an outright comedy and lose the lesson, well, lose the lessons. There needs to be some aspect of "this is escalating...this is getting out of control....ok, now something irreversible has happened." Whether or not it's We think they're dead or if they're really dead doesn't technically matter - you can still get that lesson.

I'm not sure what you mean about some Shakespeare being "preserved for them" until its relevant. Example? Obviously we're not talking about trying to impart all the intricacies of a Shakespearean plot to a 6yr old, we're talkinga bout little more than familiarity with the story and characters. I expect that for some stories the point would be completely lost - I'm not sure how Macbeth ever learns his lesson, for example. Or what to do with Titus. But you can tell a pretty fair King Lear fairy tale, as long as you stop at Cordelia and Lear's first meeting :).

Alexi said...

Macbeth's lesson is, quite simply, that crime doesn't pay. He seems to draw from his experience the idea that the world is meaningless, but the play as a whole suggests that life can indeed have a purpose if it is not corrupted by ambition and guilt.

Titus' lesson is that revenge ultimately consumes the vengeful. That, and to be wary of pies. ;)

Are some of Shakespeare's themes out of reach for youngsters? Yep. Does that mean they can't learn the basics about a play? No. My little sister has been learning a lot about Macbeth because the production has mostly taken over my life at this point. (Both my brothers are acting in it).

Here's what I want Hollywood to do. Make a family-friendly, fairy tale-esque version of one of the romances: I'm all for Pericles or Cymbeline, but Winter's Tale and Tempest have more name recognition. Aim for PG to PG-13, leave the mature themes there but don't make them so explicit that the younger ones pick up on them. Gather a talented cast and go. No need to fill it with tin soldiers or Christmas ornaments or talking woodland creatures, just do Shakespeare without (and this is the important bit, pay attention Hollywood) REMOVING THE SHAKESPEARE.

JM said...

Did Macbeth learn any lessons? Hard to say. But can a young person learn the lessons of Macbeth? And how.
I have an edited version of Macbeth for elementary school actors. It has been performed twice for the entire system in two different school districts--in Virginia no less--and was also performed on regional cable. It's about 50 min. long and sticks strictly to the story line. The edits are only in the interest of time and attention span, none of the lines are changed, the poetry and meter is preserved when speeches are cut and duologue is pieced together.

Violence ensued. Swords clashed. People died. Lessons were learned. No one is or has been scarred for life, and a good time was had by all doing, observing, and talking about... SHAKESPEARE.
My daughter watched me rehearse and play Macbeth. She was five years old at the time, knew many of my speeches before I did, and is none the worse for it.
It can be done. No garden gnomes need apply.

Duane said...

If I can get that, J, I'll take it. If my kid comes home with a permission slip saying that they'll be performing Macbeth at school I'll have it signed before she can get it out of her backpack :).

Correct me I'm wrong, though - you have a relatively captive audience. Who knows that they are sitting down to Shakespeare.

Now, do this - film it. Make a trailer/commercial out of it. Put it on YouTube. And then go ask random people "Hey, does this look interesting to you? Would you pay money to go see this?" I think the results would be obvious - people who already recognize it a Macbeth would show interest, and those who had no idea what they were looking at would probably not.

This is where I think the Disney thing comes in. Yes, it's "lowering the bar", but not in the bad, downward-slope way you think. I don't need this "it's Shakespeare or it's not Shakespeare" barrier that must be breached. After all, isn't Shakespeare embedded in culture everywhere we see? You can't swing a dead Capulet without finding some young lovers being referred to as R&J, or somebody muttering "Double double toil and trouble" over a boiling cauldron, or asking "alas, poor yorick" to a skull. Kids are seeing that *anyway*. So what's the harm in pointing out the source of those lines?

I know that we both have the same goals, so this is not an argument over which kids will have the better headstart or anything like that. Your method will reach its audience with a higher quality Shakespeare experience, clearly. But it will always be a smaller audience, don't you agree? Something like a Gnomeo movie starts showing up in tv commercials and, quality aside, we immediately have the opportunity for what, tens of thousands? millions of kids to see that, and for their parents to say "Well, that's based on a very famous story by a man named William Shakespeare..."