Review – Elementary Script, My Dear Watson (“Sherlock Gnomes”)

It’s sequel month—again—and this time it’s with 2011’s Gnomeo & Juliet, the surprisingly funny British send-up of the classic Shakespearean tragedy told with anthropomorphic garden gnomes. BUT! This time without the same director or writers from the first movie. Will this sequel be or not to be?
In case you missed the first movie, it’s been ten years since the human families (the Capulets and the Montagues) have hooked up, especially with their living porcelain garden gnomes that, like the Toy Story toys, freeze when humans are around. The red-capped Capulet gnomes now get along with the blue-capped Montague gnomes after Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) married Juliet (Emily Blunt), even though their parents, Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) objected at first. Ah, but the times they are a changin’ and the humans suddenly uprooted their lives from the quaint British ‘burbs to the hustle ‘n’ bustle of the big city!
Today, children, our story will be brought to you by the word “respect“, which will be repeatedly pounded over your head again and again throughout the movie with a 20-pound sledgehammer. After the gnome move, dark forces are at work. After Gnomeo tries to save his crumbling relationship with Juliet by stealing a flower, the two discover all their family gnomes have disappeared. Luckily, the brilliant, but egocentric detective, Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) is hot on the case, along with his eye-rolling and long-suffering companion, Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofol).

Looks like ALL the gnomes in London have been kidnapped (uh… gnomenapped?) and by none other than Holmes’ arch enemy, Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), who looks like a bright yellow miniature version of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and sounds just like Syndrome from The Incredibles. Anyway, faster than can say, “The games afoot!” (and Holmes does say that), Gnomeo & Juliet team up with Holmes & Watson in following calling-card clues left behind by Moriarty. Just like in Toy Story 2, the four must navigate throughout town, trying not to be seen by humans. But when Gnomeo & Watson feel they’re not getting the RESPECT from their partners, the gang splits up and goes their separate ways.

While Gnomeo & Watson check out two looney stone gargoyles called Ronnie & Reggie (Javone Prince & Dexter Fletcher) at the museum, Holmes & Juliet consult Holmes’ old flame, a doll named Irene, who unnecessarily belts out a song (Why? Because she’s voiced by Mary J. Blige, that’s why!). With more clues and a trip into Holmes animated cartoon “mind palace” (a parody of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock character), Holmes & Juliet find the secret hiding place of Moriarty, but with a surprise twist that, unfortun- ately, is SO telegraphed in the first five minutes of the movie, you already SEE this one coming a mile away.

The third act is your standard chase and rescue with all laws of physics and logic thrown out the window. Oh, yes, and everyone learns RESPECT for each other and yadda-yadda-yadda, and you gag on all the schmaltzy Sesame Street education that you’ve just been taught… by gnomes. Remember when I said in a previous review that many sequels suck because the original director & writers never come back? Well, case in point, this movie is a perfect example. Written by Ben Zazove, who gave the world the straight-to-DVD tragedy, The Tooth Fairy 2, and nothing else, this dumbed-down, paint-by-the-numbers film lacks all the heart and humor the first movie had.

Aimed at the youngest of kiddies, all the action is the “jingling-of-keys” kind, where newbie director John Stevenson (co-directed Kung Fu Panda) just wants to keep the little ones entertained by constantly moving things on the screen and damn the story or plot! This is a serious mistake if you’re going to cater to the adults who also brought their kids! The first movie was wildly frenetic, clever, and had humor for both kids AND adults. This movie, while straining to pull in as much Sherlock Holmes references as possible (221-B Baker St, Reichenbach Falls, Baskervilles, etc), is only minimally saved by the exceptional voice-over work of Depp, who delivers a spot-on interpretation of the sleuth.

Otherwise, the script is flat, rapid-paced to hide all the gargantuan plot-holes, constant “message” dialogue driven in like a stake through a vampire, and really lazy jokes. I found it interesting that many of the scenes in the trailer weren’t even in the final film. One wonders how much editing was done to this movie, given that the movie races through the story like it was on fire. At least all the music is by Elton John, so if you’re a fan, that’s a plus. My advice? Just rent or stream the original 2011 film and have some fun there.                                   

The Pearl of Death (1944)

There have been dozens of Sherlock Holmes, both on TV and in the movies, from Christopher Lee to Benedict Cumberbatch, they’ve all left their mark, but Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes & Watson in fourteen films from the 1940’s were the very foundation of all future Holmes’ to come. And you can see why!

Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyles The Adventures of the Six Napoleons story, Sherlock (Rathbone) has once again tricked a courier aboard a ocean liner bound for England that is trying to steal a pearl. Ah, but not just any pearl, but the Borgia Pearl, a super-valuable babble meant for the Royal Regent Museum. The courier, a diabolical actress and thief, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) is in league with master criminal Sir Giles Coniver (Miles Mander), who realizes that she’s been “properly had” by Holmes of Baker St. But Holmes is pissed about the lackadaisical security at the museum and, showing their weaknesses, accidentally gives Giles the means to steal the pearl. Oopsie!!

Embarrassed by his actions (something that seldom happens), Holmes sets out to find the pearl, but when Giles is arrested the infamous Borgia pearl is missing! Where’d it go? Pretty soon clues start to pop up: like six small porcelain Napoleon busts have either disappeared or have been stolen from a certain curio shop. What’s worse is anyone who came in contact with one those busts is killed by a horrible assassin of Coniver: the legendary “Hoxton Creeper” (Rondo Hatton), a huge deformed man who snaps your spine like a breadstick!

Faster than you can say, “The games afoot!”, Holmes follows the clues for who has one of those six Napoleon busts, because ONE of them contains the Borgia Pearl! Who will get to it first? Coniver, the Creeper, or Holmes? And what about the Creeper’s really creepy affection he has for Naomi? Eeuuww!! Bertram Millhauser, who wrote several of the Sherlock Holmes film adaptations, did his best here with a cracker-jack script, loaded with peril, suspense, ghoulish black humor, and bringing back an arch-nemesis of Holmes that was as cunning as Professor Moriarty.

Shot in glorious black & white, director Roy William Neill’s film history is impressive, dating back to 1917 and directing 12 of the 14 Rathbone/Bruce films. His style is simple, clean, and effective, getting the most out of the least amount of space. But it’s Basil Rathbone and his portrayal of Holmes that was so indelible. Oh sure, you got your snooty Jeremy Brett (1984-1994) as an introverted Holmes and brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (2010-2016) as a sociopathic Holmes (not to mention Robert Downey, Jr. in two film versions), but Rathbone leads the pack.

What’s funny–and little bit sad–is the depiction of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ right-hand man and bestie, played to perfection by Nigel Bruce. Bruce was always written in this series as a bumbling, fumbling, absent-minded fool who followed Holmes around like a puppy and rarely gave him any help or vital info. The quintessential comical side-kick, if you will. Thank God in all the future series and movies, Watson was bumped-up to a more intelligent character who not only helped Holmes, but often solved clues on his own.


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