'Gnomeo & Juliet' a cutesy cartoon that fails to captivate

Cute and cutesy aren't remotely the same thing. But "Gnomeo & Juliet" doesn't always know the difference between the two.

It's got a cute premise: a "Shrek"-meets-"Toy Story" twist on William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," with garden gnomes as the star-crossed lovers.

But the execution of that premise is often too contrived and cutesy for its own good.

Not that the kids will care -- but the grown-ups accompanying them might miss the secret and elusive ingredient that separates routine animated romps from truly magical movie experiences. It's tough to define but -- as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of obscenity -- you know it when you see it. And, more importantly, when you feel it.

Alas, it's nowhere to be found, or felt, in "Gnomeo & Juliet," a perfectly pleasant little cartoon that occasionally manages to be more than that. (Just don't expect it to turn up among next year's Oscar-nominated animated features.)

"Gnomeo & Juliet" takes us -- where else? -- to Shakespeare's veddy English birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, where next-door neighbors Miss Montague and Mr. Capulet live, and feud, on a street named after Romeo and Juliet's hometown, Verona.

But the movie's conflict is hardly confined to the human neighbors.

Out in the garden, the resident gnomes and other lawn ornaments, distinguished by their signature colors, extend the hostility.

The blue crew's led by the formidable widow Lady Bluebury (voiced by Maggie Smith), while crusty widower Lord Redbrick (voiced by Michael Caine) presides over the red team.

Naturally, milord and milady don't engage in direct combat.

They leave that to the younger generation, setting the stage for Lady Bluebury's scrappy son Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and hot-tempered redster Tybalt (voiced, appropriately enough, by action star Jason Statham) to mix it up by racing lawn mowers and otherwise expressing their unending enmity.

Until the fateful night Gnomeo and Lord Redbrick's daughter Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) meet by chance -- and, as the Bard himself wrote, "no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved ..." (OK, that's from "As You Like It," but "Gnomeo & Juliet" mixes up its numerous Shakespearean references throughout, so if the movie doesn't care, why should I?)

Their clandestine romance poses a decided challenge, requiring the assistance -- sometimes able, sometimes not so able -- of sympathetic allies. Romeo and Juliet had a nurse and a friar; Gnomeo and Juliet have gossipy, water-spouting ceramic frog Nanette ("Ugly Betty's" Ashley Jensen) and plastic lawn flamingo Featherstone (voice-over veteran Jim Cummings), whose honeyed Latin accent is reminiscent of Antonio Banderas' "Shrek 2" scene-stealer, Puss in Boots.

That's probably not a coincidence, considering that "Gnomeo & Juliet" director Kelly Asbury's directorial credits include "Shrek 2" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." Not surprisingly, "Gnomeo & Juliet" echoes "Shrek's" cheeky 'tude rather than "Spirit's" beautifully animated but achingly earnest approach, opting for lots 'n' lots 'n' lots of slapstick humor and pop-culture references, from James Bond to Elton John.

The Elton John connection is hardly coincidental; "Gnomeo & Juliet" is from John's production company, Rocket Pictures, and John's husband, David Furnish, is one of the producers. The soundtrack also features plenty of John's '70s hits, from "Your Song" to "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," plus a few new tunes written with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin.

They're as melodious as ever, but they signal one of "Gnomeo & Juliet's" principal shortcomings: a willingness to sacrifice story and characters in favor of wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes.

That tendency slows "Gnomeo & Juliet's" pacing to sometimes dangerously draggy levels -- which allows plenty of time to appreciate the detailed computer animation and far too much time to ponder the derivative script. (Nine credited writers? Not counting the original source -- which makes perfect sense, considering how many plots Shakespeare himself ripped off in his day.)

While you're waiting for the next slapstick shtick to kick in, it's fun to play name-that-voice with the movie's extremely eclectic vocal cast. (Among the unlikely but undeniable standouts: Hulk Hogan as a rabid lawn mower pitchman and Ozzy Osbourne as an addlepated lawn fawn.)

The fact that you can match the actors to their roles indicates just how clever "Gnomeo & Juliet" thinks it is -- and how it fails to captivate audiences who should be too caught up in the characters to pay attention to who's voicing them.

Fortunately, it's not enough to ruin the fun completely. But it's more than enough to make you wonder where the wonder went.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.