The original “Gnomeo and Juliet,” in case you missed it, was a rigorously inoffensive voyage straight down the middle of the road. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) were mismatched lovers racing through a simplified version of William Shakespeare’s classic play, but with a happier ending because children presumably can’t handle death. (Except that one of the characters in “Gnomeo and Juliet” dies horribly. But whatever.)
For the sequel, the filmmakers had the entire history of literature from which to choose, and they knew it. The second movie opens with various garden gnomes arguing over which adaptation to do next. They decide on “Sherlock Gnomes,” which isn’t the worst idea ever, but it’s even more fun to imagine just how bizarre this series could have gotten if they made “A Gnome-federacy of Dunces” or “One Hundred Years of Gnome-itude” instead.
Anyway, “Sherlock Gnomes” stars Johnny Depp as the title character, a garden gnome dedicated to solving mysteries and saving other garden gnomes from the villainous Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou, “Tracey Ullman’s Show”), a pie company mascot gone bad. Sherlock Gnomes and his partner Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) defeat Moriarty, seemingly for the last time, but then garden gnomes go missing throughout London, and Sherlock realizes that the game is still afoot.
Meanwhile, Gnomeo and Juliet have moved to London with their whole family, and they’ve just been promoted to king and queen of the garden. Juliet gets a little preoccupied with her day job, Gnomeo’s feelings get hurt, and their squabbling keeps them away from home just long enough that all of their fellow knickknacks are abducted too.
One thing leads to another, and soon enough Gnomeo, Juliet, Holmes and Watson are barreling through London, solving mysteries and foiling the kidnapping scheme of two dopey gargoyles and their mysterious leader. Will they save all the gnomes? Will Juliet realize she’s having trouble prioritizing her marriage? Will this movie somehow justify its own existence?
The whole “Gnomes” franchise brings to mind that old chestnut, the general belief amongst adults that “kids will watch anything.” Of course, that’s not much of an excuse. A) It’s not true, and B) even if it was true, the only reason to make kids watch bad movies or TV shows would be because adults decided that they didn’t deserve better ones.
“Gnomeo and Juliet” wasn’t particularly awful, but if it were a meal, it would be Wonder Bread toast with nothing on it. “Sherlock Gnomes” doesn’t have much more nutritional value, but at least it slaps some peanut butter on this franchise to give kids at least something to chew on. It’s a speedy adventure with diverse action set pieces and a mystery that boasts at least one halfway decent twist. As directed by John Stevenson (“Kung Fu Panda”), it’s a mildly amusing matinee adventure, and superior to “Gnomeo and Juliet” in every way.
“Sherlock Gnomes” even boasts a few moments of genuine inspiration. Whenever Sherlock Gnomes enters his famous “Mind Palace,” in order to sort through every piece of information he has in his enormous brain, the animation shifts to dynamic 2D black-and-white, and the film takes on a playful, buoyant energy. And then of course it shifts right back to stiff, colorful CGI, because nothing gold can stay.
It’s the little things we have to latch onto sometimes. It’s hard to think of a single joke in “Sherlock Gnomes” that elicits a proper laugh, and the relationship between Gnomeo and Juliet is dull as dishwater, but the dynamic between Holmes and Watson has a bit of genuine heft to it. Watching Ejiofor, as a garden gnome, endure the consistent apathy of someone who should be his best friend is more interesting that you might think. Not much more interesting, but again, it’s the little things.
“Sherlock Gnomes” isn’t nearly as bad as a film called “Sherlock Gnomes” would, under any other circumstances, probably be. But although there are moments of creativity, and a few noteworthy vocal performances, it’s still a middle-of-the-road cartoon adventure and children still deserve better. However, when they’re done consuming those other, better movies, let it be known “Sherlock Gnomes” would make a perfectly acceptable snack.
Now … bring on “Gravity’s Gnome-bow”!