Correction: The original version of this article contained an error. Elton John wrote the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti, and Luigi Creatore wrote “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Some intriguing news surfaced on Entertainment Weekly’s website Thursday, revealing that Elton John and Lady Gaga are collaborating on an original song.
More intriguing, though, by several notches on the scale, is what the song is for: “Gnomeo and Juliet,” an upcoming children’s animated film from Touchstone Pictures, which reimagines Shakespeare’s greatest love story with rival families of garden gnomes.
Oh how silly, you might say, but why should we care? This particular ridiculousness is for kids, not for college students. We know the real story of Romeo and Juliet, or at least the version with Leonardo DiCaprio.
You might even mention, as did Robert Watson, an English professor who teaches Shakespeare, that in the best-case scenario, such a film would inspire young people to explore the Bard’s work in greater depth when they’re older.
Watson did warn, though, that much of the brilliance of “Romeo and Juliet” comes from Shakespeare’s use of language, and it seems unlikely that these dwarfish lawn ornaments will engage in any comparably witty wordplay.
So let me just add that we, as college students, should care about “Gnomeo and Juliet,” and not just because it sounds hilarious when you say the title out loud. For one thing, we grew up with animated films plucked from children’s novels and folk tales, and how many of us sought out Rudyard Kipling’s work after watching “The Jungle Book”? How many of us brushed up on our American history enough to find out that Pocahontas married John Rolfe, not John Smith? Did any of us even realize that “The Iron Giant” was based on a book, much less one written by Ted Hughes?
And, of course, it’s not even true that at this age we’re done with such movies. So many of us turn to the Disney classics of our youths, like so much comfort food, when the strangeness of dorm life and the stress of midterms leaves us feeling overwhelmed and not quite ready for adult life.
It’s especially true of this generation, which seems determined to break all records for how little time passes before feeling nostalgic. Admit it: How many of us saw “The Princess and the Frog” when it hit theaters last year? How many of us cried during “Toy Story 3″?
My point is, we’re still tied quite closely to animated children’s movies, and “Gnomeo and Juliet” should elicit a special pang in our hearts. After all, Elton John, who is also producing the film, gave us “The Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” while “The Lion King” taught us so sneakily about “Hamlet.”
But that Disney classic never purported to actually tell the story of “Hamlet,” and certainly did not stoop so low as to pun on the title. And although I have not seen “Gnomeo and Juliet” ““ it is scheduled to release in February ““ I have seen a manic, haplessly absurd trailer, and prospects do not look good.
It is immediately apparent, even from these short clips, that “Gnomeo and Juliet” shares a director with “Shrek 2,” employing that same brand of fast-paced, quip-based humor and explosive action. Shakespeare’s plot seems to have been appropriated in its simplest, least provocative form, and one has to wonder how the movie will end ““ it will not be, I suspect, with poor Gnomeo and Juliet committing tragically misinformed suicide.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning Pixar, which makes not so much children’s movies as fantastically rich grown-up movies that happen to be animated and safe for young people. Pixar has worked almost exclusively with original stories, with the slight exception of the Aesop’s fable-inspired “A Bug’s Life,” and every single one has been imaginative, complex and utterly beautiful.
What I would give for more movies like those. Instead we have vacuous, lifeless retreads of popular novels, old (and sometimes not-so-old) movies, graphic novels, video games and theme park rides. We have now, for this new generation of fledgling moviegoers, a repackaging of the greatest love story ever told into a hectic farce about garden gnomes.
Imagine Pixar doing Shakespeare. Imagine the depth of character, the flood of genuine emotion, the stunning visual detail of a meticulously animated Verona.
Instead we have this. There may never be another story that provokes more woe, in English students everywhere, than this of Juliet and her Gnomeo.
If you feel sorry for the children whose first impression of Shakespeare will be “Gnomeo and Juliet,” e-mail Goodman at [email protected]