There's a current boom of family-friendly film fare inspired by beloved British literary characters, which makes this moment ripe for the animated “Sherlock Gnomes,” the sequel to 2011's “Gnomeo and Juliet.” In terms of ranking these adaptations, “Sherlock Gnomes” is quite a bit more pleasant than “Peter Rabbit,” but doesn't touch the wonder of “Paddington 2.” It's a fairly serviceable animated feature, with a few inspired elements, and more than enough gnome puns to go around.
The beloved British literary characters are, of course, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, as well as Romeo and Juliet. They offer enough rich, recognizable lore to pad out this London-set mystery from “Kung Fu Panda” director John Stevenson. As for the appeal of using garden gnome characters, well, it's anyone's guess. Perhaps the Travelocity Roaming Gnome was an inspiration?
“Sherlock Gnomes” is essentially “Toy Story” mashed up with “Sherlock Holmes,” with a dash or two of “Romeo and Juliet.” The garden gnomes and lawn ornaments come to life while their owners are away, ruling over their bucolic backyard domains. Returning characters Gnomeo (James McAvoy), Juliet (Emily Blunt), and their garden menagerie have been uprooted from to the country to the city, and just as they're settling into London life, they learn the hard way about the harsh realities of urban crime.
When a number of gnomes are kidnapped, Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp), the guardian of all the gnomes in London, swoops in to investigate with his trusty, long-suffering helper/partner Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while Gnomeo and Juliet join up to help find their gnome clan. Sherlock instantly suspects his nemesis Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), whom he thought he vanquished in a great museum caper.
Their race around London looking for clues follows the format of British crime films like “Snatch” as the team encounters various seedy characters of the dolls and ornaments underground — including the Barbie madam of a doll museum, Irene (Mary J. Blige), armies of Asian-inspired waving cat figurines and various hench-gargoyles. While the plot spins out of control, stopping every now and then for an Elton John dance party (as with the original, he is a producer on the sequel and lends his catalog), the pairs learn a lot about how to demonstrate proper appreciation for their partners, particularly the logic-driven Sherlock and Juliet.
Depp's voice performance as the quirky Sherlock Gnomes is unrecognizable and rather uninspired. His character only takes off during fantasy sequences done in a lively black-and-white line-drawing animation style that illustrate his peculiar brain and ways of thinking. But the true standout among the voice performances is Demetriou as the demented, devious Moriarty, who takes the form of an adorable but evil little pie boy figurine — sort of like if Bob's Big Boy wore less clothes, had less hair and sported a devilish grin and cackle. This kind of surrealism is what “Sherlock Gnomes” is largely lacking in terms of personality, and the film comes alive when Moriarty is on screen in a way that it doesn't otherwise.
There are some fun bits and bobs to be found in the amusing-enough antics, but the overall picture doesn't have the kind of true wow factor to make it stand out from the pack.
Rating: PG, for some rude and suggestive humor
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release