SHERLOCK GNOMES. Voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mary J. Blige, Johnny Depp. Directed by John Stevenson. 86 minutes. Rated G (Very mild themes, animated violence and coarse language).
In its opening scene, ‘Sherlock Gnomes’ steals the easiest barbs that critics could level at the fledgling ‘Gnome’ franchise, by getting a few gnomes to riff on the apparent modus operandi of their films. After being told that they’re about to hear the tale of Sherlock Holmes, they beg for alternatives based on different popular IP – ‘Game of Gnomes’ cries one, while others plead for ‘Spider-Man: Gnomecoming’ and ‘The Gnome Ranger’. This is only the second instalment after 2011’s ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’, so there are plenty more films built around gnome-related puns to be made. At this point, viewers will likely prepare themselves for a one-joke film stretched thin, but the result is surprisingly diverting. It’s hardly Pixar, but it will certainly entertain kids over the upcoming school break and might even amuse parents accompanying them.
After their owners move to a new home in London, garden gnomes Gnomeo (a roughly spoken James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt, spirited) find their burgeoning romance threatened. With the pair announced as the new leaders of their garden ornament clan, newfound responsibilities put undue pressure on their commitment to one another. In a bold attempt to repair their fractured relationship, Gnomeo decides to steal Juliet a rare orchid, but the plan is interrupted when all the other gnomes go missing. After Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and Doctor Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) show up and declare their friends kidnapped by the nefarious Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), Gnomeo and Juliet are swept off on a crime-fighting adventure with the world’s greatest detective.
The case isn’t a particularly difficult one to crack (most adults will see the first “twist” coming, although the final reveal caught me by surprise), but the film is a serviceable introduction to the super sleuth for little ones who aren’t yet up to ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’. It helps too that the animation is surprisingly good, with bright colours and plenty of energy (I say ‘surprisingly’ because its budget was less than a third of an average Pixar film).
The new cast additions are solid too. Depp makes a decent Sherlock, working with a script that emphasises his shrewd intellect and emotional detachment over any of Conan Doyle’s more “adult” flourishes (Sherlock’s addiction, for one), and Ejiofor is a solid foil, believably downtrodden by his famous friend. The highlight of the bunch might be Jamie Demetriou, whose Moriarty is utterly demented, in a pantomime sort of way, though the character’s facial animation is decidedly unpleasant. Enjoyable cameos, from Mary J. Blige as a doll counterpart to Irene Adler to Dexter Fletcher and Javone Prince as a pair of Cockney gargoyles, add more pleasure to the mix.
The film borrows several fun music cues from Elton John, who is both an executive producer of the film and husband to its producer David Furnish, including ‘I’m Still Standing’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright’. One can’t deny their toe-tapping infectiousness, and director John Stevenson wisely borrows their kinetic power to carry the transitions between various story elements.
The script, written by Ben Zazove with four others sharing a story credit, throws up a lot of jokes with mixed results. They don’t always stick, but a handful are good for a grin and there’s rarely much time to dwell on the duds. It seems that most child-skewing movies released today need to impart some important lessons.; in the same way that ‘Toy Story’ might be considered a tale about valuing our friends’ differences, or ‘The Incredibles’ a lesson in family trust, ‘Sherlock Gnomes’ preaches the value of respecting partners, be they romantic or platonic. Here, Zazove does his strongest work, with several of the emotional beats traversed (as our two lead pairings break up and make up) imparting genuine swells of feeling.
Other critics have widely panned this sequel, with a common gripe being an apparent lack of reasons to exist. Given this and the non-existent reputation of the film’s animation house, no one is more surprised that I enjoyed the film than I am. The sequel has plenty of reasons to exist, and I find myself hoping that another gnome-related pun can turn this twosome into a trilogy. My enjoyment was a genuine mystery to me, but we should count ourselves lucky that ‘Sherlock Gnomes’ has taken on the case.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 5.