At one point in director John Stevenson’s Sherlock Gnomes, we see a potato-chip bag bearing the name of legendary Czech filmmaker and animator Karel Zeman. It’s a wildly unexpected reference to find in the middle of a mass-market computer-animated kiddie flick, and, unfortunately, it’s the only surprise this lazily conceived sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet has to offer. Zeman’s captivatingly innovative fantasy films are worlds away from Stevenson’s clumsy mishmash of cutesy gnome-related humor, Holmesian mystery, and perfunctory action-comedy. Flitting from one half-backed set piece to the next at a breakneck clip, Sherlock Gnomes hits all the requisite beats of a contemporary children’s film without carving out an identity of its own.
The story sees Gnomeo (James McAvoy), Juliet (Emily Blunt), and the rest of their fellow lawn gnomes from the first film relocating from Stratford-upon-Avon to a new garden home in London. But just as everyone is settling into their new lives, nearly the whole group goes mysteriously missing. Only Gnomeo and Juliet, who were away from the garden at the time of the abduction, are left behind. The duo enlists the help of gnome-finding detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp, leaning hard into a Basil Rathbone-like accent) and his put-upon assistant, Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to help find their friends. Together, they track a series of clues left by supervillain Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a former pie company mascot turned gnome murderer.
The group’s investigation is ostensibly meant to offer a peripatetic tour of London, but the film’s locations of choice—including Chinatown, the Natural History Museum, an art gallery, and a weird back-alley cabaret where Sherlock’s ex-girlfriend (Mary J. Blige) performs a boisterous Rihanna-style musical number—mostly feel arbitrary. The world of Sherlock Gnomes is weirdly incoherent, a bunch of disparate elements awkwardly bundled together without any overarching aesthetic vision. Take, for example, the bouncy Elton John classics that litter the film’s soundtrack; their inclusion clearly has more to do with the singer being one of the film’s producers than with any particular thematic appropriateness of the tunes.
More crucially, Sherlock’s astringent personality and Watson’s poignant longing for respect never really gel alongside simple, one-joke characters like Mankini (Julio Bonet), a butt-wiggling gnome who wears a Borat-style one-piece swimsuit. Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters feel as if they’ve been air-dropped into a universe where they don’t belong. The Sherlock and Watson of this film are simply bog-standard versions of the same characters we’ve seen a million times before, with no panache or personality to make them distinctive to this particular film; they don’t even really look like garden gnomes. If nothing else, Sherlock Gnomes proves that it takes a lot more than a pun to make a beloved literary figure your own.