This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Credit where credit is due, “Gnomeo and Juliet” got the job done, in terms of cutesy animated projects built around puns involving lawn trinkets. An irreverent and poppy take that admittedly did not end in double suicide, “Gnomeo and Juliet” volleyed cynicism by leaning into the cuteness that comes with such a title, and sprinkled in lots of dancing, Elton John songs, and cheesy puns. It even had a nice montage of a human marriage imploding, as witnessed by two flamingos (you know, for the adults). And when a Shakespeare statue (voiced by Patrick Stewart) told Gnomeo about the real ending of the story, it was kind of funny.
Believe it or not, “Sherlock Gnomes” does not share the integrity of its predecessor. It all starts, again, with how the pun is executed: this story imagines the famous detective as being too arrogant and selfish to his friend Watson and other gnomes. On top of this, this central character is brought to life with hoity-toity-ness by Johnny Depp, whose pretentiousness only seems like a joke when the script is intensely making fun of that attitude (as in “Mortdecai”). With little wit to its name, “Sherlock Gnomes” becomes far more tedious than playful.
After the contained backyard chaos of “Gnomeo and Juliet,” the now-franchise takes to the streets of London for a mystery that Sherlock Gnomes and his assistant Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must solve. Someone has stolen all of the gnomes in London, with the trinkets vanishing randomly in the night. This includes gnomes like Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith), Mrs. Montague (Julie Walters), a fawn voiced by Ozzy Osbourne, and more. Much of the main cast returns, especially Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt), who are now imagined as an seasoned married couple that have lost touch.
I should say at this point that I know that this movie was not made primarily for someone like me. So, I am pleased to report that the most consistent piece of amusement for the crowd I saw (of primary demographic) was the gnome who wears sunglasses and a pink bikini. A close-up shot of his butt got the biggest laugh.
Anywho, thinking that it’s his adversary Moriarty (now imagined as a puffy yellow pie mascot with a sharp-toothed grin and lame meta villain jokes, as voiced by Jamie Demetriou), the overly proud Holmes, his dutiful Watson and Gnomeo and Juliet venture around London, with 24 hours to find the gnomes before they are smashed. Despite these stakes, the story’s sense of adventure is weak, something that I bet kids will notice (or feel in their boredom). As they go from place to place, the script harps upon the tension within the two pairings, especially that of how cruel Holmes is to Watson, which makes for a tediously conveyed message about not taking for granted those who support you. Nonetheless, the greatest challenge for these gnomes seem to be humans noticing their sentience, but would it be so bad if the gnomes were noticed? Or would that bring about a gnome apocalypse?
While the humor is certainly for kiddies and the story can’t even muster a good twist in spite of its inspiration (there is even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Steven Moffat’s “Sherlock”), the animation is more than serviceable in bringing the figures to life. There’s an impressive detail to many of them, especially the shininess and the wear they individually have. It’s just a case of what they do with them, which in this case is put them in a dull adventure. Opening up this now-franchise to small figures navigating a whole city just shows its “Toy Story” roots more nakedly, but with forgettable characters dancing or fighting from one set-piece to the next. The wildest creative ideas here are the locations, including a teeth-gnashing visit to a Chinatown shop filled with maneki-nekos (the fortune cats that look like they’re waving), which feels like the non-PC foreign food section of “Sausage Party,” without the satire. Then of course there’s a club-like place, where Holmes’ ex (a sexed-up doll voiced by Mary J. Blige) performs a song that reaffirms how much Sherlock sucks.
“Sherlock Gnomes” is an example of how when a pun concept doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work and takes the project down with it. The new air of action doesn’t lead to excitement, as the movie wants tone taken seriously for its life-or-death adventure but lacks wit. Puns are supposed to inspire cuteness in this world (like in the very beginning, where characters imagine takes like “Spider-Man: Gnomecoming” or “The Twilight Gnome” as potential new stories). But "Sherlock Gnomes" is bizarrely too serious to be charming, as much as I was amused by the brief promise of gnome genocide.
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