Sherlock Holmes is a character that has lasted in the imaginations of readers for well over 130 years. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson, solved many a mystery. Each of Holmes’ adventures were written from Watson’s point of view, a filter through which Holmes could explain his deductions to readers. Over time, Holmes has been adapted in many ways from theatre to television, the most recent being Elementary. It was only a matter of time before he was adapted as a garden gnome.
Watson wasn’t the only character that remained in the pop subconscious. Other of Doyle’s creations are as well known, including Irene Adler, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. An equal match to Holmes’ intellect, Moriarty appeared in the story, “The Adventure of the Final Problem”, published December 1893 in Strand Magazine and with the collection of short stories, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in the same year. In it, Holmes had already deduced who the Napoleon of Crime was and had plans to arrest him and key members of his gang. Moriarty, though, worked out who was behind all his recent setbacks and promised Holmes mutual destruction if the detective continued to work against him. Holmes sees no problem with that, with a career of detective work behind him that bettered London. The chase is afoot, and Holmes and Moriarty meet again at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. After a fight, both tumble into the Reichenbach Falls, never to be seen again.
Doyle meant for “The Final Solution” to be the last Sherlock Holmes adventure. He was getting tired of writing about the character. Fans, though, demanded more, despite the apparent death. Doyle obliged with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902. Professor Moriarity returned in The Valley of Fear, published in 1915 as a lead up to the events in “The Final Solution”.
Moriarty intrigued fans of Sherlock Holmes. Despite having just the two appearances, Moriarty challenged Holmes on a intellectual level, an equal match for the detective where their final meeting resulted in their demise. Not just a villain, but a foil, a nemesis. One that can be expected to appear in an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Even one where the detective is a garden gnome.
When Gnomeo & Juliet was released in 2011, the movie exceeded box office expectations. When a movie does that well, sequels are expected. Since Shakespeare never wrote a Romeo & Juliet: Part II, mostly because the titular characters died in the original play, there’s not much to build from there. However, low-hanging puns are easy to build upon, leading to Sherlock Gnomes. Gnomeo & Juliet managed to hit most of the beats of the Shakespearean play, changing only near the end. Could the creative team do the same with Sherlock Gnomes?
Most of the cast of Gnomeo & Juliet returned, the main exception being Jason Stathem as Tybalt. Joining the cast are Johnny Depp as Sherlock Gnomes, Chiewetel Ejiofor as Dr. Watson, Mary J. Blige as Irene, and Jamie Demitriou as Moriarty. Once again, the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin form the bulk of the soundtrack, with the exception of a piece by Jacques Offenbach. The crew comprised of people from Gnomeo & Juliet who weren’t otherwise busy with other projects.
The movie opens with Sherlock Gnomes and Watson foiling the plans of Moriarty to smash some helpless garden gnomes at the museum. Gnomes and Moriarty have been matching wits for some time, with the villain leaving clues to taunt and test the detective. This time, though, it appears that Moriarty himself is smashed.
Elsewhere, Ms Montague and Mr. Capulet move together from 2B and Not 2B Verona Drive in Stratford-upon-Avon to a brownstone on Baker Street in London. The garden gnomes are put out in the small garden. Once alone, they animate once again. Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) announce they will retire once the new garden is properly set up, with Juliet (Emily Blunt) and Gnomeo (James McAvoy) appointed the new gnome leaders. The scene lets audiences familiar with the first movie catch up on the characters, with Benny (Matt Lucas) having his hat repaired between movies. As the garden work goes on, Juliet is spending less time with Gnomeo. Feeling neglected, he decides to go on an adventure to find the flower that brought him and Juliet together in the first place, the purple Cupid’s Arrow Orchid.
Juliet discovers Gnomeo’s foolish adventure and goes out to save his butt. She is not impressed; she wants the garden in top shape. As they argue, they hear Benny call for help. When they return to the garden, the rest of the gnomes have disappeared. However, Gnomes and Watson are on the scene. With very little explanation, Gnomes begins searching for clues on the disappearance, ignoring questions from Gnomeo and Juliet. The detectives find Moriarty’s calling card and leave, with Juliet and Gnomeo on their heels.
Gnomes may not want meddlesome assistants with him, but he’s stuck with the newcomers. The clues lead through London, meeting a variety of ornaments from Chinatown to a toy store where Irene is in charge. All leads to a final encounter with Moriarty, who managed to escape his apparent smashing with just minor, reparable damage, at the Tower Bridge. The final battle sees Sherlock and Moriarty fighting then falling from the Bridge much like the illustration shown at the beginning of the movie.
Sherlock Gnomes takes a few liberties with “The Final Solution”, though the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the story, just the characters in it. Still, key beats from the story show up, such as Gnomes travelling to various locations to keep a step ahead of Moriarty. Much like Holmes, Sherlock Gnomes is brusque and lacking in social skills. In the literature, Watson acts as the filter between Holmes and the reader. In the movie, Watson fills the same role, not just to the audience but also with the gnomes the two meet. Gnomes is also a master of disguise, much like his progenitor, including disguising himself and Juliet as a squirrel in order to retrieve one of Moriarty’s calling card from the cutest Hound of the Baskervilles to be on screen. Being a family film, Sherlock Gnomes elides Holmes’ addictions, though as a garden gnome, it’d be hard to show his heroin habit.
The movie borrows an idea from the Robert Downey, Jr. in showing how Sherlock’s thought processes work. Instead of slowing down the action, Sherlock Gnomes uses black and white animation, showing how the detective works out problems. The processes aren’t that easy to understand, being meant more for comedy than actual problem solving tips. Gnomes also has Holmes’ eye for detail and observation, able to tell that Gnomeo and Juliet are having a lovers’ quarrel within seconds of meeting them.
With the basic premise of telling an adventure of Sherlock Holmes as a garden gnome, the movie could have taken an easy route of having just a gnome that looks like Holmes solve a mystery set to the music of Elton John and be done with it. Instead, Sherlock Gnomes brings in Holmes as he is in Doyle’s stories, intelligent, arrogant, and dismissive, and still highlights what would have been his last adventure if Doyle had his way while turning the character into a ceramic ornament. Gnomeo & Juliet demonstrated that the creative team could keep to the beats of a tragedy while still making a feature for the entire family. Sherlock Gnomes follows in the same footsteps.
The plays of William Shakespeare have long been the go-to source for adaptations. Some plays, like Julius Caesar, can be treated as historical drama. Others can transcend their original setting and be placed in almost any setting, with Romeo and Juliet as the exemplar. Romeo and Juliet has been adapted as written, transplanted in time as in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, as an action movie with Romeo Must Die, as science fiction with Romie-0 and Julie-8, as a ballet, as a musical with West Side Story, and even animated, as in the aforementioned Romie-0 and Julie-8. This one play could sustain several months’ worth of columns here at /Lost in Translation/ on its own. If you go back to The Nature of Remakes, I brought up the idea that remakes and adaptations should bring something new to the work. Gnomeo & Juliet is not the first animated version of the play, nor is it the first musical.
What it does bring is garden gnomes.
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and is typically the first that high school students run into in English classes. The play tells the story of the star-cross’d lovers whose love runs into the feud between their families. Shakespearean tragedies tend to have a body count, and Romeo and Juliet is no exception, albeit having a small number of deaths. Two notable deaths, though, are the title lovers, thus turning the play into a tragedy.
Gnomeo & Juliet, though, is a animated film meant for family viewing. Family fare of late, though, avoid death, especially of the lead characters*. Characters are allowed to be in danger, even in mortal peril, but a “happily ever after” ending is the rule, not the exception. However, older family members may be familiar with Romeo and Juliet as they watch. There are expectations. How does Gnomeo & Juliet fare?
The movie starts with one of the gnome chorus introducing the film, saying that the story has been, “one that has been told. A lot.” Right away, the movie itself is aware that /Romeo and Juliet/ is the most adapted of Shakespeare’s plays. But, the gnome continues, “We’re going to tell it again, but in a different way.” Fair notice that the movie isn’t going to be faithful. However, the gnome then starts with the prologue from the play, ending only when the stage’s trap door opens underneath. The line that got interrupted? “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”
The story takes place in the gardens of Ms Montague, who lives at 2B Verona Drive, and Mr. Capulet, of Not 2B Verona Drive. The Blues, ruled by Gnomeo’s mother Lady Bluebury, maintain Ms Montague’s garden. The Reds, bitter rivals to the Blues, are led by Lord Redbrick, Juliet’s father, and keep Mr. Capulet’s garden in top shape. Gnomeo, who is a combination of Mercutio and Romeo from the play, first appears in a lawnmower race against Tybalt. The race goes to Tybalt, who wins through a low blow. Meanwhile, Juliet is being kept safe by her father and is chafing to get off the pedestal, metaphorically and literally. With help from her confidante, a ceramic frog named Nanette, taking the role of the nurse from the play, Juliet sneaks out to recover a flower in an abandoned yard. Romeo, too, sneaks out, meaning to exact revenge on Tybalt but is distracted by a figure in the moonlight.
For a movie promising to tell the tale differently, it does follows the play. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet appears and, while not in the same language, it does carry the same sentiment, the pull between duty to family and desire for the young gnome. The feud escalates, leading to the smashing of Tybalt during a fight with Gnomeo and Gnomeo’s exile. It’s only when Gnomeo runs into a statue of William Shakespeare is the audience told the movie isn’t beholden to the play. Even then, the destruction of Juliet’s pedestal by the Terrafirminator while Gnomeo trying to free her was big enough for good old Bill to shout, “I told you so!”
Gnomeo & Juliet is an odd movie. It bounced from Disney to Miramax to finally Starz Entertainment before getting the green light. With music by executive producer Elton John, expectations were mixed. At the same time, the casting was both inspired and ecletic. The title characters were played by James McAvoy, a Shakespearean actor, and Emily Blunt. Maggie Smith, another Shakespearean actor, voiced Lady Bluebury, and Michael Caine provided his talents as Lord Redbrick. Patrick Stewart, also Shakespearean, played the statue of William Shakespeare. Adding to the cast, we have Jason Statham as Tybalt, Ashley Jensen as Nanette, Matt Lucas as Benny**, the counterpart to Benvolio from the play, Jim Cummings as Featherstone, a plastic flamingo, Ozzy Osbourne as Fawn, taking the role of Peter in the play, Dolly Parton as Dolly Gnome, who started the first lawnmower race, and Hulk Hogan as the Terrafirminator Announcer. Add in the gnome chorus working for Lord Redbrick and the ceramic bunnies*** helping Lady Bluebury, and the casting is impressive.
As an adaptation, Gnomeo & Juliet is a little loose with the original, though it does hit the major points of the play up to when the movie says it’s deviating. The biggest change is in tone; the original tragedy is turned into a musical comedy. Yet, there are moments when the original play shines through to add drama. The beats of Romeo and Juliet are still in the movie, and the survival of the leads does become doubtful.
Gnomeo & Juliet did well enough at the theatres that a sequel has been announced. Gnomeo & Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes will introduce the world’s greatest detecting ceramic gnome consultant to solve a mystery haunting the families.
Next week, Super Mario Bros.
* There are exceptions, but they are rare.
** Benny did indeed have a scene where “Benny and the Jets” played. The scene was related to the plot.
*** When the feud breaks out into open warfare, the bunnies paint themselves blue like the extras in Braveheart.