This week sees the third entry in the Lego film franchise, which, after a three-year hiatus from the amazing original The Lego Movie, decided to triple up this year with The Lego Batman Movie and now The Lego Ninjago Movie. Those first two films spoke for themselves by virtue of their titles, but Ninjago might struggle a little more to find a broader audience beyond young kids and hardcore Lego fans. After all, Ninjago is an entirely Lego-specific franchise, a breakout hit within the toy company to be sure, and a successful cartoon series and mythology in its own right. But with no broader pop-culture hook to reach out to wider audiences, The Lego Ninjago Movie is a bit of a gamble for the company and Warner Animation.
Whereas the original The Lego Movie concerned broader themes of play and imagination, and The Lego Batman Movie was a metatextual analysis and parody of Batman, The Lego Ninjago Movie is going for…well, I’m not sure what, exactly. This is the first (of three!) Lego films in which the overarching theme of the story isn’t exactly manifest. The film opens in a surprise reversal of The Lego Movie‘s big twist, beginning in the real world and showing a discouraged young boy who wanders into Jackie Chan’s stereotypical Chinese antiquities shop to get a life lesson in self-confidence from the master himself, or at least, whatever character Chan is playing. Either way, he does some cool acrobatics with tea cups and Chinese wisdom.
But anyway, the story then moves into an admittedly gorgeous homage of all things Asian pop culture, as the fictional Lego Ninjago City is under daily siege from Lord Garmadon (Justin Thoreaux) and his army of aquatic generals. Taking a cue from your typical Voltron/Power Rangers storylines, the story suggests that Ninjago City suffers from the malaise of anime blandness, where the exact same adventure happens every day: Garmadon attacks, the Ninjas climb into their mechs and defeat his forces, and everything returns to status quo to repeat daily. And in normal life, the Green Ninja–Lloyd (Dave Franco)–suffers from outcast syndrome, as it’s publicly known that Garmadon is his dad. The city publicly rejects him even as it remains unfortunately unaware that he’s also the ninja who rescues them every day.
Things go from doldrum to worse when Lloyd–ignoring the advice of Sensei Wu (also played by Chan) and steals the “ultimate ultimate weapon”–in Lego Movie fashion, a “real world” artifact with deadly consequences when used. Lloyd’s hubris results in the accidental summoning of a kaiju (if you haven’t seen the commercials, it’s best if you’re surprised by what happens), leaving Garmadon victorious, the Ninjago mechs destroyed, and the city under siege. Hence, Wu must lead Lloyd and the other ninjas on a quest of self-discovery to find the one thing that will defeat the kaiju–even as Garmadon follows them to claim the weapon for himself.
Now, that’s all well and good, but The Lego Ninjago Movie ultimately drifts into predictability surrounded by humor. As the third film in the franchise, Ninjago suffers from the same repetition hitting the Marvel films: they’re all good, but they’re also repeating the formula that made the initial film work and, in the process, add nothing new. Iron Man and the other Phase 1 films were a work of genius; Marvel’s subsequent Phase 2 and Phase 3 films tend to be a beat-for-beat repeat of what worked in Phase 1. Ninjago has the same difficulty, in that it’s got brick-based humor (including a delightful severed limb scene) and an emotionally touching father-son segment…but while it’s good, it’s also nothing that hasn’t been touched before.
What’s worse, Ninjago focuses on Lloyd and Garmadon so much that the rest of the cast becomes window dressing. Fans of the television show appreciate a rich mythology surrounding each of the six ninjas and the larger cast. For the film, this is mostly Lloyd’s show…although, appropriately, Thoreaux’s Garmadon plays the funnyman to Lloyd’s straight role. Chan’s Sensei Wu also gets in a number of great gags…but the remaining ninjas don’t do a lot more than just enjoy the ride that Lloyd takes them on. Even the previous two Lego movies gave some spotlight and personality to the supporting cast. Ninjago just sort of has them there.
What The Lego Ninjago Movie does do well, though, is display gorgeous construction and cinematography. It’s an open fact that Lego fans suffer from a certain purity problem, where Lego is only compatible with Lego and nothing else. The original Lego Movie, absurdly, built its entire world out of bricks, to include ethereal things like water and clouds. Ninjago has a gorgeous city and mech design, and these things work well in brick format. But for the organics: sand, water, and plants, real objects are used. This works well for the film’s Asian aesthetic, and suggests that bricks and real objects isn’t the cardinal sin Lego fans make it out to be.
And, look, while this isn’t a great Lego movie, it is a good one. It’s flawed, but it may not lend itself to adult analysis either. When the film ended, the end credits rolled out a dance number where Lord Garmadon instructed the audience to participate. Sure enough, a little kid in front of me got up and moved through the entire thing. The Lego Ninjago Movie is, if nothing else, a silly movie about toys and play that makes for a welcome distraction in what’s been a lousy post-summer film season. While it’s not essential, it’s also not a bad way to spend an afternoon, followed by a stop at the toy store for some Ninjago sets.
Rating: Three kaiju out of five.