It's not exactly the case that Gnomeo & Juliet is bad. That's not at all the right word. It's a lot more damn bizarre than it is bad. The part where it recasts Romeo and Juliet into the world of living garden gnomes from two neighboring yards, that's nothing. Anybody who has made it to 2011 and can still be weirded out by exercises in transposing Shakespearean plays to ludicrous new settings simply hasn't been paying attention. And it's not because the film boasts a soundtrack made up entirely of Elton John songs. I mean, that's strange, but not horribly strange. The whole thing where the soundtrack actually turns out not to be so much John's songs as it is instrumental orchestrations of his songs, that's where it starts to get kind of inexplicable. If you haven't heard "Rocket Man" played on triumphant strings as a "Hero's victory" motif, and I'm guessing you haven't, then you've missed out on one hell of an auditory hallucination. And even that's nothing compared to "I'm Still Standing" as the underscore to an action setpiece.

What's really strange is just, the thing itself. After rolling it around, I honestly have no clue who the target audience for Gnomeo & Juliet is meant to be. Children? Probably, given the G-rating and the overall sense of undemanding whimsy. The only problem with that theory is that virtually all of the particulars feel like they're being pitched at the adults in the audience, who'll get the smirky references and double entendres and, well, the Elton John-ness of the whole affair (the pop icon executive produced the movie; I think it's up for debate whether his apparent endorsement of this film or Rush Limbaugh's fourth marriage represents the greater debasement of his integrity as an artist and human being). It's sort of like a Shrek picture distilled so that only the adolescent snark remained, with all the swashbuckling and magic and other family-friendly bits removed; it would be an exaggeration to claim that not a single gag is left in the movie that doesn't require knowledge unlikely to be found in the average 7-year-old, but not much of an exaggeration.

That means: the usual barrage of sex jokes hidden in plain sight (and smutty ones, too: there's one about the size and firmness of a gnome's hat that does not seem at all correct for a "G", but these things are so grotesquely arbitrary anyway), and malapropisms, and cultural references 20 years out of date and a particularly galling bit where Patrick Stewart plays the voice of a statue of William Shakespeare, apparently so broken by his decades with the RSC that he's decided to turn on the most famous and influential writer in the history of the Western Hemisphere in service of a joke that essentially runs, "Boy, that Shakespeare fella used florid language! and he told depressing stories! What a dick, amiright?" It's tremendously hard to say who exactly is supposed to find that amusing, other than the militantly illiterate, but there you go. Gnomeo & Juliet, folks.

So anyway, what that leaves for the nominal young audience, I don't know: bright colors and a thin layer of slapstick, I guess. But I'm not going to hold it against Gnomeo & Juliet that it's a bad children's movie; not when I can more readily hold it against it that it's just all-around a bad comedy, one that has only a few different jokes which it shuffles out in increasingly desperate permutations. Did you find the crazy Latino plastic flamingo played by a shameless Jim Cummings hilarious last time? Well, maybe you'll find it funny this time!

What saves the film- no, scratch that, the film isn't saved. But what would have saved it, if it had been saved, is the design and animation, by Canada's Starz Animation, the company behind 9, among other things. You have perhaps never particularly wanted to know what a movie would look like if it featured CGI garden gnomes whose design constantly emphasised their craggy ceramic surfaces emoting with remarkably supple expressions, wandering around grassy landscapes just outlandish enough to stay in the world of fantasy, where greens are a bit greener and flowers are a bit more velvety and water is a bit thicker. I never particularly wanted that, at least. But now that I've got that, I can't help myself but think that I were getting a film that featured CGI garden gnomes &c, I am ecstatic that it should look as handsome as Gnomeo & Juliet looks; and if the characters were going to be given such drippy things to do, I am nevertheless glad that they could be animated with such sincerity of emotion while doing them.

So on the one hand, a flimsy retelling of a story that doesn't need it; on the other, it's kind of gorgeous, in a lovingly tactile cartoon way (I went to some effort to avoid seeing the thing in 3-D, looking to save a bit of cash; perhaps the right choice, perhaps not. Nothing seemed obviously wanting). In the middle, a lot of famous people get stranded with practically nothing to do but recite lines that occasionally reference Shakespeare, but more often are contented to serve as a delivery system for gnome-based puns: James McAvoy and Emily Blunt play the titular lovers, Michael Caine plays Juliet's dad while Maggie Smith plays Gnomeo's mom, Jason Statham plays Tybalt (who, in some indefinable way, sort of looks creepily like Statham), Matt Lucas of Little Britain plays a hybrid of Mercutio and Benedict, and Ashley Jensen of Extras plays the frog water fountain nurse in what is very much the only performance in the film that tries at all to find anything flexible in the material and turn it into something alive and fun.

And then there are two instantly-forgettable new Elton John songs (one of them a wildly ineffective duet with Lady Gaga) in amongst all the odd as hell instrumental versions of old Elton John songs, and some gags that are amusing in the sheer brassiness of their absurdity if nothing else, and the vaguely charming cartoon English nature of the whole affair is appealing in a trivial sort of way ("Ohoho those Brits with their obsession for gardening, and their love of tacky garden gnomes!" the film seems to chuckle, and if the bulk of the nine-person writing team wasn't in fact British by birth, I'd accuse it of being wantonly bigoted. Instead, it is merely self-loathing). The whole thing might ultimately be little but a take-off of Toy Story with sarcastic jokes that don't always make sense in place of a warm heart, and Lord knows it's clear why Disney decided late in the game to distribute this under the Touchstone brand name rather than Walt Disney Pictures, but, um, it's got stuff. 's pretty. Heck, it's not like there aren't worse animated pictures released every single year, y'know?