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Movie review: Parents should pass on inferior 'Sherlock Gnomes'

“SHERLOCK GNOMES” — 1½ stars — Voices of Johnny Depp, Kelly Asbury, Mary J. Blige, Emily Blunt, James McAvoy, Michael Caine; PG (rude and suggestive humor); in general release

“Inside Out” was a creative story about the pains of adolescence, which envisioned an 11-year-old Riley's emotions as individual characters in her brain. “Kubo and the Two Strings” explored the powerful bonds of family through stunning stop-motion animation. John Stevenson’s “Sherlock Gnomes” is a weak pun stretched into a 90-minute feature film.

Not every animated children’s film has to be a moving Oscar contender, and “Sherlock Gnomes” has its strong points, including a talented cast and a few fits of inspired animation. But “Sherlock Gnomes” charges parents just as much per ticket as those other superior films, and its tepid concept consistently undermines its foundation.

The film, which is a sequel to 2011’s “Gnomeo and Juliet,” displays a world where ceramic garden gnomes walk and talk when the humans aren’t watching. It’s pretty much the same concept as the Toy Story movies or even 2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets,” and your appreciation for this movie will probably depend on your affection for those quirky little gnomes.

Where the first film was a riff on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” this new installment introduces Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp), the sworn protector of London’s gnome population. Gnomes works alongside the erstwhile and chronically unappreciated Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to thwart their sworn enemy Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), who here is some kind of yellow-orange pie company mascot that is shaped like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Sherlock is launched into action when a small community of newly relocated garden gnomes goes missing, presumably because Moriarty wants to smash them. The only gnomes to evade kidnapping are Gnomeo and Juliet (James McAvoy and Emily Blunt, back from the first film), who have just been appointed leaders of the community and are having relationship troubles.

The plot then follows a pair of dysfunctional relationships as they try to hunt down Moriarty and save all the garden gnomes. They also have to try to save those dysfunctional relationships, which is how Stevenson and Co. try to give the movie a meaningful message.

The cast, as mentioned, features a laundry list of familiar names, though it’s unlikely any of them will point to “Sherlock Gnomes” as much more than a payday. And while the film’s primary CGI animation is certainly competent, its periodic interludes into a creative black-and-white mode to illustrate the inner workings of Sherlock’s brain — which feel like an M.C. Escher illustration brought to life — are much more interesting to watch.

But in spite of those sporadic positives, most of “Sherlock Gnomes” just feels like B-side filler, built on a weak idea that can never really justify the effort. This one might keep the kids occupied in a pinch, but parents shouldn’t have a tough time finding better options.

The strangest thing about “Sherlock Gnomes?” Its persistent obsession with Elton John, credited as the film’s executive producer, in musical cues, dialogue references and the odd visual. Is there a logical connection between the artist and the film, or are they just really excited to feature John wherever they can get away with it? Who knows? “Sherlock Gnomes” is bound to leave you with a lot of unanswered questions.

“Sherlock Gnomes” is rated PG for rude and suggestive humor; running time: 86 minutes.