Sherlock Gnomes opens by tipping its hand, going through major works of literature and pop culture to see which ones lend themselves to cloying, forced gnome puns, and then, between groans, building a loose story around it. It’s as if the writers (Ben Zazove, Kevin Cecil, and Andy Riley) were unenthusiastically grasping for an opening before settling on simply relaying their initial brainstorm when tasked to come up with a sequel to 2011’s featureless and inoffensive Gnomeo and Juliet, a film whose box office returns apparently warranted a second chapter. Director John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) gratingly cutesy story does little justice to the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Shakespeare, or anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves entangled in its audience.
Since we last saw them, Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) have moved their backyard shenanigans from Stratford-upon-Avon to London, but it isn’t long before their loved ones go missing. Assuming that the garden ornaments have fallen prey to his obnoxious arch-nemesis and pie company mascot Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp, playing the role he’s prepared a lifetime to play: a pretentious, self-absorbed prick) is on the case, along with his oft neglected partner Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The predictable (even by family movie standards) chase to find the culprit gets bogged down by wasting energy teaching kids all the wrong lessons and padding its runtime with seemingly endless dance parties.
Sherlock Gnomes is banking on its humor, but it fails to reach even the incredibly low bar it sets for itself. This is this kind of movie that treats the sight of a ceramic rear end or a male garden gnome dressed in a pink tutu as jokes unto themselves. It also works up the audacity to toss in a painfully outdated sequence through London’s Chinatown that falls somewhere between tasteless cultural insensitivity and blatant racism. Every other scene or so, there’s a moment of risqué humor, presumably for the benefit of the parents in the audience, but nearly all of them awkwardly land with a resounding thud.
Rocket Pictures assumed the reins of this production – apparently in addition to the writing of the screenplay – and they never for a moment let you forget it. The story is littered with agonizing references to Elton John, including (but certainly not limited to) lines of dialogue lifted directly from his lyrics and a soundtrack entirely composed of his biggest hits given needless 21st century updates. It’s all rather excruciating, however there is some joy to be found in hearing the melody of “The Bitch is Back” in a movie targeted to small children.
As was the case with its predecessor, there are a handful of half-hearted attempts at something resembling artistic integrity. The ventures into the black-and-white, M.C. Escher-inspired recesses of Sherlock’s mind are a clever jab at the popular BBC crime drama series. The writers also sprinkle in a few punchlines that suggest they’ve actually read the classic literature they’re exploiting. But the successful flashes of wit are few and far between, and they get lost in the ocean of tedium they find themselves drowning in.
As it drags its one-note novelty characters from one ill-conceived set piece to the next, Sherlock Gnomes is all but insufferable for any viewer old enough to differentiate between breezy popcorn entertainment and a flagrant cash grab. Churning out a pun-based literary reinterpretation, unsurprisingly, can’t sustain a feature-length movie. Repetition is cinema’s gravest sin, and this tale seemingly goes out of its way to repeat itself. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” doesn’t need a techno pulse and moviegoers don’t need Sherlock Gnomes.