STARRING: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan
DIRECTED BY: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
WRITTEN BY: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington
The Ninjago series has been a latter-day success for Lego, moving the company further away from the near-bankruptcy days led by duds such as Jack Stone and Galidor. As Amy Walker’s excellent guide explains, think of Ninjago as the stackable answer to Power Rangers. You have six teenagers with attitude in colour-coordinated outfits who are guided by a mystical sensei. They each possess a special power that helps fight off their foes: Earth, Fire, Ice, Lightning, Water, and greeeeeeeen.
Greeeeeeeen is our central character in The Lego Ninjago Movie. Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco) leads the team under his Green Ninja persona despite their arch nemesis being his estranged father, Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Garmadon’s plans mirror those of The Joker in The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)—overly-elaborate schemes, create chaos, take over the city, fire sharks at will—and like The Joker his win-loss record is negligible at best.
Garmadon barely escapes every time because Lloyd, so outraged over his unbeknownst father failure to acknowledge his existence, becomes sloppy and betrays his ninja skills. Lloyd’s recklessness upon using The Ultimate Weapon, so knowingly teased by his uncle Master Wu (Jackie Chan), brings the Ninjago city to its knees. In order to fix his mistake, Lloyd must win back the trust of his team as they go deep into the jungle in search of The Ultimate ULTIMATE Weapon. Obviously.
Ignoring all the straight-to-DVD Lego superhero films, Lego has built its cinematic universe on the sensibilities of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – The LEGO Movie (2014) directors whose sly references and meta-humour have been a godsend in post-Family-Guy-just-mention-Star-Wars-or-something comedy. Lego Batman, like Ninjago in how Lord and Miller only produced it, retained their anarchic spirit but was numbingly louder.
Batman followed the tired superhero template perhaps too reverently; never quietening down except when Lobster-Lovin’ Batman ate and watched Jerry Maguire alone in his mansion. Ninjago mercifully dedicates more scenes to small talk. The brick-shaped explosions are still plentiful, but Lego’s three films have shone brightest whenever the characters stumble over each other’s dialogue in ways that make them seem more human.
Speaking of, the film is bookended by real-life Jackie Chan in a beginning-of-Gremlins Chinese antiques shop, telling the Ninjago ‘myth’ to a young child (Kaan Guldur). The purpose of these scenes… who knows. Yet for those familiar with the twist in The LEGO Movie, this feels like a comfortable retread – breaking down the reality between storytelling and storyteller. In fact, ‘familiar’ is the central theme of the Ninjago Movie. Lloyd and his outsider status replays Emmet, Garmadon follows The Joker’s character motivations act-by-act, and there’s another “Everything Is Awesome” (which is way less awesome, BOOOOO).
The Ninja team consists of six warriors, but everyone barring Greeeeeeeen gets nothing except an introductory title card and the slightest of stereotypes. Nya (Abbi Jacobson) is introduced as the girl of the squad. She questions whether that’s acceptable characterisation in 2017, and then she’s a mere extra body during skirmishes. Garmadon describes the team as: “Lloyd, and Lloyd’s friends who I don’t know”. Even the collectible Ninjago minifigures just have Lloyd in his ninja outfit – the rest relegated to costumes seen for seconds in the closing credits. If the six writers and three directors weren’t as beholden by corporate mandate to the existing property, The LEGO Ninjago Movie could have focused more on fewer characters. And let’s not get started on the plotting, built on contrivance after contrivance.
But does it matter for a Lego film designed primarily for kids? Probably not. The LEGO Ninjago Movie remains highly entertaining and lands more jokes than an entire Adam Sandler Netflix deal. Ninjago‘s playfulness actually puts it above LEGO Batman – the twist of The Ultimate Weapon makes it more memorable too. The issue here is longer term: Lord and Miller must reconcile their whackier ideas with Lego’s sizeable—and increasing—product line.
Lest we forget these films are extended commercials. If they fail to attract kids (and AFOLs) to the toys and vice versa, it could spell disaster for our Danish brick-loving friends. They may even have to resort to dragging Jack Stone and his oversized head out of the retirement home for help…
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is now on general release. Let us know what you make of the movie!