February 11, 2011 in Features

Animated at ease

Elton John finds peace with new movie, new son
Derrik J. Lang I Associated Press

Gnomeo, voiced by James McAvoy, left; Juliet, voiced by Emily Blunt, center; and Featherstone, voiced by Jim Cummings, in a scene from “Gnomeo and Juliet.”
(Full-size photo)

Tickets go on sale Saturday for Elton John’s concert April 8 at the Spokane Arena. For details, see 7 Nights Out, our weekly pullout section, page D1.

Unlike most frantic new fathers, Elton John isn’t stressed out about the two very different offspring in his life: newborn Zachary Jackson Levon and “Gnomeo & Juliet,” an animated film that he’s been parenting for more than a decade.

In fact, when talking to the pop legend about his monumental new arrivals, he’s surprisingly sedate.

“Having the baby has chilled me out so much,” John, 63, said from behind a pair of black shades during a recent interview. “It’s made me so relaxed and happy. I’m in the best of moods. Who wouldn’t be?”

And, he added, “I’m proud to talk about something we’ve been making for 11 years that’s finally coming out. I feel happy. I’ve never been this kind of calm.”

To be clear, the baby is Zachary, born to a surrogate mother on Christmas Day. And the thing that’s been cooking for 11 years is “Gnomeo & Juliet,” opening in theaters today.

John (who comes to the Spokane Arena on April 8) is executive producer of the computer-generated tale about a pair of star-crossed garden gnomes.

His production company Rocket Pictures snapped up the script, which spoofs the William Shakespeare classic “Romeo and Juliet,” in 2000.

During development, the film flopped from Disney to Miramax then back to Disney. (“Michael Eisner didn’t get gnomes,” lamented John.)

Eventually, the movie’s producers – which include John’s husband, David Furnish – took control and escaped to Toronto, where Starz Animation worked for the past five years to bring the battling blue and red gnomes to life.

“Gnomeo & Juliet” is being released under Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label, its first animated movie since 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

The G-rated film tells the story of gnomes Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) and Gnomeo (James McAvoy), who fall in love against the wishes of their warring kin.

Juliet’s red gnome comrades include her father, Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine); cousin Tybalt (Jason Statham); deer friend Fawn (Ozzy Osbourne); and froggy pal Nanette (Ashley Jensen).

Gnomeo’s blue gnome compadres are his mother, Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith), and confidante Benny (Matt Lucas). Patrick Stewart also cameos as a chatty Shakespeare statue.

Instead of creating an original animated film soundtrack, like he did with Tim Rice on Disney’s “The Lion King” and DreamWorks’ “The Road To El Dorado,” John teamed with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin and tapped into the duo’s iconic history.

John said the idea to infuse the film with hits originally came from former Disney studio chief Dick Cook.

“He said, ‘I want a classic Elton John rock and roll soundtrack,’ ” said John. “Bernie and I were going to write about five or six songs for the movie, so we only wrote four songs, two of which were used, and the rest of it is classic Elton John.

“I don’t take credit for that. It wasn’t me saying, ‘Well, it’s a great chance for me to get my back catalog out!’ ”

“Gnomeo & Juliet” composer James Newton Howard, who toured with John as a keyboardist in the 1970s and 1980s, weaved a score using classic John melodies.

For example, as the gnomes spar on their lawn battleground, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” riffs in the background. “Bennie and the Jets” chimes in when Benny hops from key to key on a laptop.

The new songs include “Hello Hello,” a rollicking duet with Lady Gaga, and “Love Builds a Garden,” a touching tune that plays during a montage about lovelorn plastic lawn flamingos.

“The Sky is Falling,” a new song featuring Lily Allen, was left on the cutting room floor, though Nelly Furtado lends her voice to a punchy new rendition of “Crocodile Rock.”

“I was very determined to make sure the music worked appropriately as a storytelling point,” said director Kelly Asbury. “I really did look at it as another character and part of the glue that emotionally holds things together.

“There was a lot of trial and error. I wanted to make sure to use it in a way that honored the music but didn’t mock the music.”

That doesn’t mean the Rocket Man was off limits when it came to punchlines.

Bespectacled gnome Paris (Stephen Merchant) serenades Juliet with a rendition of “Your Song,” in which he swaps the line “it’s a little bit funny” for “it’s a little bit runny.” As he croons, his elvan garb transforms into a glittery ensemble resembling one of John’s getups.

“He’s kind of gnomosexual, isn’t he?” John said. “I burst out laughing when I saw him all put together about three months ago.

“Stephen Merchant is extremely funny. He said to me before I’d seen it, ‘I hope you’re not too insulted with what I’ve done.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m very easy. I’m very thick-skinned.’ It was brilliant.”

John is ready to tackle a more morose subject in his next project: a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” with “Billy Elliot” collaborator Lee Hall.

“It’s not an easy task because it’s got a horribly sad ending,” said John. “The characters are obviously all animals, but I love the thought of that because it’s difficult.

“(Hall is) a brilliant lyricist. He’s not going to throw it to me until he’s finished all the lyrics, so hopefully in the next two or three months, we’ll look at that and start writing it.”

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