Review: The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan
Writer: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Starring: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods, Jackie Chan
Genre: Action, Comedy, Martial Arts
Rating: PG
A third one of these, huh? One might wonder if we’re going too fast with these animated LEGO movie releases. Well, my youngest brother is a huge fan of the show and the toys, so it would do me well to give some benefit of the doubt here. Besides, it’s not like a rapid sequence of releases of a particular franchise is necessarily a sign of rushed and/or lazy storytelling. Let’s give it a go.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Frequent but intentionally unrealistic fighting/action. Blasters are fired. One character loses an arm, but it’s played for laughs, and because the characters are LEGO figures, it’s not a permanent loss. The action comes in set pieces that resemble kids’ play, with nonspecific hits in the kung fu-like scenes and human sound effects for blasters (“Pew! Pew! Pew!”).
Language/Crude Humor: Some humor might be considered rude to some viewers.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: Some talk of “harnessing the power within.” Usually played for laughs.
Other Negative Themes: Estranged father-son relationship with a great deal of dysfunction.
Positive Content: Good guys show courage in the face of long odds, and bad guys come around to see the light. There are clear themes of self-empowerment, forgiveness, and acceptance, plus reconciliation and prioritizing family.

Review

I’ve held as a basic principle for quite some time that anything can be ruined by overexposure. It is for this reason that I strongly encourage Warner Bros. to take a break from anything Batman related for a while. The Dark Knight has had his day in the spotlight in a multitude of ways recently and is starting to wear out his welcome. The LEGO Batman Movie worked as well as it did precisely by being a screed of biting satire on the character and mythos of Batman rather than just indulging his “cool” factor once again. The whole subversive formula of making the most obvious weakness the greatest strength by openly and unapologetically acknowledging the weakness does have a breaking point. And it is a formula that the Warner Bros. LEGO movies have utilized for the third time in The LEGO Ninjago Movie.
Admittedly, Ninjago has a unique burden on its shoulders. The toy line of LEGO Ninjago began in 2011 and soon spawned a fairly successful animated series on the Cartoon Network that, as far as I know, might or might not still be in production. The approach to be found in the show’s production differs quite fundamentally from that in the film. While, from what I can understand, the story, characters, and setting are brought here wholesale, the framing of the narrative in The LEGO Ninjago Movie attempts to carbon copy the real-world framing devices of The LEGO Movie with markedly less impressive results. Granted, few were as happy as me to see Jackie Chan (now in his early 60s) introduce and perform throughout the story proper as a wise middle-aged shop owner in the framing narrative and the sage ninja master in the LEGO world’s tale, but for the target audience of the franchise (largely boys ages 12 and under), such a celebrity appearance might not carry a lot of weight.

The story focuses on the pan-Asian city of Ninjago which is regularly attacked by the evil Lord Garmadon (an endlessly entertaining Justin Theroux) for seemingly contrived reasons. The attacks involve massive mechs and armies of robot marauders that make a very fine mess of things whenever they show their ugly mugs. Thankfully, Ninjago has a means of defense from such threats in the form of a Power Rangers-esque team of six color-coded ninjas with abilities rooted in the natural elements who meet Garmadon’s forces with giant robots of their own. What makes up the overall appeal here is a no-holds-barred playful parody of not just the Ninjago brand, but also kung fu movie tropes, pan-Asian cinema, and, yes, the Power Rangers. Honestly, it’s rather ironic how this managed to be a more successful Power Rangers movie than the than the actual Power Rangers movie that came out earlier this year. Maybe THIS is the direction they should have taken. At least there’s no Krispy Kreme on offer here.

The main protagonist is Lloyd (Dave Franco), a high school student with a strange double-life. Secretly, he is the green-colored member of the ninja clan defending Ninjago who almost schizophrenically goes after Garmadon directly in every encounter with guns blazing but also constantly holds himself back from finishing Garmadon off for good. Publicly, he is known by all to be the estranged son of Garmadon himself and thus is regularly scorned for his vicarious ties to the dark ninja lord’s city-destroying shenanigans.
In addition to having a live action framing arc, Ninjago borrows a few more quirks from its predecessors. As the ninja are usually chastised for not actually putting a stop to Garmadon’s reign of terror for good, Lloyd decides to seek out the wisdom of his clan’s Master Wu (Jackie Chan, lively as ever) for a way to do just that. Wu mentions an “ultimate weapon” that would prove to be devastating in the wrong hands and thus denies Lloyd’s request to use it against Garmadon. Here is one example of a returning element from The LEGO Movie, in that the story centers on a magical McGuffin that happens to actually be a common real-life household object. This McGuffin also brings the funniest gag in the whole movie, and I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that Lloyd’s misuse of the weapon results in him and his clan having to team up with Garmadon to seek out another McGuffin to undo his ghastly mistake.

The strained relationship between Lloyd and his evil dark lord father is the heart of the film, however small and meek it might be. The banter they share with each other and others about their estrangement provided me with more than a few laughs. Garmadon also mirrors the main antagonist of The LEGO Movie in being another unnaturally tall over-the-top villain with silly headgear who operates his regime like an overbearing corporate middle management professional. The main distinction is that Justin Theroux hits all of his lines with unrelenting bravado and pulls no punches with any of his one-liners. There is an especially funny sequence in which he faces the wages of his sins against his underlings. It was one that I would love to see explored by other stories with similar setups.
It may be a little premature to say, but Warner Bros’ LEGO films might only have a few more releases in them before they start to become tiresome and rote. There were some respectable technical achievements that were unprecedented this time around. Whereas in The LEGO Movie even natural elements like water and foliage were also made to be rendered by LEGO blocks, here the greenery and bodies of water are made to appear as real objects, with forests clearly made of garden plants and such. The models of the characters were also made to look distinctly weathered this time around in appearance with visible scratches and smudges upon them. This gave them the engaging charm of having been played with that I found quite fetching.

It can be somewhat jarring to the young fans of the Cartoon Network program to see the movie take such a radically satirical approach that differs so much from its source material. Where the show has the characters animated in fairly traditional fashion with the characters going about their plots with little in the way of meta self-effacement, the film operates like its forerunners in which the characters act and live with a sharp tongue-in-cheek awareness of the interchangeable plasticity of their inherently toyetic world. Despite that (or because of it depending on your point of view), a lot of fun is to be had here, even if the fun is trying a little too hard to be fun at times and it may be forgotten about soon thereafter.

 

Positives

+ Sharp and witty writing + Great voice work + Killer visual gags + Some respectable technical advancements

Negatives

- Limited appeal - Exhausting - Recycles old devices

The Bottom Line

The weakest of the LEGO movies, but the strongest of the Power Rangers movies. Make of that what you will.

 

8

Tyrone Barnes

1 Comment

  1. John Canary on September 28, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    I liked how the LEGO Batman Movie did away with big being linked to the real world. I’m disappointed they brought it back.

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