by Philip Price
Well, the time has come, but admittedly, it came a little quicker than I thought it might. “The LEGO Movie” brand has seemingly run out of gas in what is no doubt only its first act. Though it was just in February of this year that it seemed it was the LEGO brand, behind Marvel of course, that was having the most success in carving their own path out of a recognizable brand things have quickly changed with the rise of “Wonder Woman” and the misstep that is “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” After blowing all expectations out of the water with “The LEGO Movie” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller set not only a precedent for any sequels and spin-offs that might come in the wake of their success, but they also set a very specific tone that has now served as the signature trait of that initial film, “The LEGO Batman Movie” from earlier this year, and now ‘Ninjago’ as it attempts to be just as irreverent as its predecessors. ‘Ninjago’ is different though in that, while the first film had the brand to market and ‘LEGO Batman’ obviously had Batman as a marketing tool, ‘Ninjago’ is a specific line of toys from the Lego brand that has made its way into a television show and now a feature film. The point being that, because it has narrowed the brand down into such a specific line of toys it has narrowed the appeal as well. That isn't to say that just because ‘Ninjago’ isn't as immediately recognizable or notable as the brand's previous outings that it immediately carries less weight, but rather that it has more to prove to more people. “The LEGO Movie” itself had a lot to prove, but surprised everyone when it could balance its great sense of humor with real heart while ‘Ninjago’ seems to be piggybacking off that style rather than coming up with a unique voice of its own through which to convey its movie. It was always going to be curious how Warner Bros. Animation went forward with the Lego universe in terms of each of the films sharing a similar tone or if they would divert according to the toy line and/or type of story they were telling, but with ‘Batman’ and now ‘Ninjago’ it is clear each "LEGO Movie" will follow suit in the self-aware and spoof-like nature of that original outing. While this isn't the worst thing in the world it already feels somewhat tired three films in and though the movie's trio of directors who have plenty of experience between them have done well to follow the precedent set by other Lego pictures they have done little to help ‘Ninjago’ stand enough apart from them for it to be memorable.
In “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” we step into this world first through what was the big reveal in the original ‘LEGO Movie’ as we are dropped into the real world and introduced to a child (Kaan Guldur) who wanders into an old relic shop that belongs to Mr. Liu (Jackie Chan). It is here that the kid brings with him a toy from the Lego Ninjago line who is named Lloyd and is described as an average kid, much the way our surrogate kid for the audience feels. Naturally, Mr. Liu holds a more ancient Lego character name Master Wu who he tells the child is connected to Lloyd and thus makes Lloyd not just an average kid, but an exception in that he must overcome much adversity for being the son of the biggest warlord the city of Ninjago had ever seen, Garmadon (a fantastic Justin Theroux). From here we are transported into the computer animated world of Ninjago where we meet Lloyd (Dave Franco) on what should be a highlight of a day among the rest of his days-his birthday. Lloyd isn't particularly looking forward to what this day will hold as his father, who barely knows him and doesn't acknowledge him, is sure to attack the city once more in hopes of ruling it forever. It doesn't seem Lloyd's mother, Koko (Olivia Munn) understands Lloyd's predicament either as she essentially dismisses every negative thing he must say and encourages him to the point of naiveté. When Lloyd gets to school that day, it becomes clear he doesn't have too many friends as most of the Lego kids blame him for the destruction and terror caused by his father. Thankfully, Lloyd does have a select group of friends made up of Cole (Fred Armisen) a DJ as well as the black Ninja of Earth, Jay (Kumail Nanjiani) the overly cautious blue Ninja of Lightening, Zane (Zach Woods) who might be a robot and not a teenage boy, but is also the white Ninja of Ice, and then there are brother and sister Nya (Abbi Jacobson) who is the strong silver Ninja of Water and Kai (Michael Peña) the hotheaded, red Ninja of Fire. Together these six friends form a top-secret Ninja Force that comes to save the day every time Garmadon and his goons attack. Led by Master Wu (also Jackie Chan), who also happens to be Garmadon's brother and Lloyd's uncle, the Ninja Force team is brought to a point of submission when Lloyd, letting his emotions get the best of him, pulls out Master Wu's ultimate weapon and attempts to use it on Garmadon inadvertently bringing down a greater threat on Ninjago in the form of the monster Meowthra (a genuinely funny bit). After capturing Garmadon, but placing the city in more danger the Ninja Force must partner with their sworn enemy, and Lloyd with his estranged father, to search out Master Wu's ultimate, ultimate weapon to save their home once and for all.
With animated movies, as they recycle morals and lessons that have been told time and time again, it is more about how you're saying what you're saying rather than what exactly you might be saying, but while “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” has a certain element of fun to it in that the cast is clearly game for whatever the directors and creative team wanted to throw at them what the movie seems to be getting at thematically is lost in the shuffle of all the plotting and silliness necessary to still be labeled a "children's movie". Much like “The LEGO Movie” before it “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” shares a theme that concerns parental figures and the relationships we have with our parents and the responsibilities involved in becoming a parent, but while the film shows us everything a bad parent can be and can create in a child it never really gets to a point where it's saying something about the relationship between Lloyd and Garmadon that would resonate past, "oh, isn't it funny how he doesn't even realize who his son is?!?" In fact, it's a little strange in terms of how the first Lego film went from creating a subversive way of delivering the children in the audience that old message about each one of them being special while not reducing the moral of the story to everyone being exceptional whereas ‘Ninjago’ essentially outs Lloyd for being extremely exceptional by way of coming out the other end of an estranged relationship with his father all the better for it. While it's not hard to see how that could mean a lot to children who lack a proper father figure in their life, the movie doesn't make itself so much about this as it does the comedy of the dissonance between father and son. Furthermore, the supporting characters that are intended to fill in as Lloyd's true family in terms of that other age-old lesson the movie strives to teach in that it's not always those that are blood that act most like family, but those who you can trust and depend on that are your true family barely render. I'm a fan of the “Silicon Valley” duo (though not because I've seen that show) and have always had an odd affinity for Armisen while always having found Peña to be comic gold and hearing nothing but good things about Jacobson in “Broad City,” but these obviously funny people are never given much to do outside of a single scene where it's abundantly clear they could improvise some and thus it contains what are the few genuine laughs the movie must offer. Outside of this scene that focuses on the number of arms Garmadon has this is largely the Justin Theroux show as he'll toss out one liners and throwaway lines that are as funny as any visual joke or spoof the script seems to have concocted.
Admittedly, I knew nothing about what Ninjago is, where it came from, or what it was about prior to walking into the film, but the movie did little to inspire any interest in how far the brand extended and even less interest in the characters themselves. The first half hour of the film is something of a repetitive drab in that it feels like television episodes have been boiled down into a routine, expository first act that then segues into the main objective of the film in an awkward fashion that doesn't feel organic at all, but more like the six credited screenwriters and total of nine individuals that have received a story credit on this thing somehow had no idea how to translate this particular line of Lego sets into a feature length movie. Sure, there are a few cool kung-fu action pieces that seem to be poking fun at a different time and a different genre of film while the satire element of this one doesn't go as bold as “The LEGO Movie” did with its social commentary, but rather ‘Ninjago’ simply sticks to lampooning action-blockbusters. There are some cool visual stylings here and there-especially when it comes to the mechs and machines that Lloyd's secret ninja force uses during the early action sequences, but there is no urgency to these scenes and nothing that compels the viewer outside these colorful and cool-looking visuals to entice them in what is happening. That may be enough for some of the younger kiddos in the crowd, at least temporarily, but eventually the film realizes it needs to be about something, throws in the whole family angle to a deeper degree, and yet-somehow the movie still doesn't develop its lead character past anything more than Lloyd being bound and determined to not end up like his father that we don't care about his plight enough to care whether he succeeds or not on this stale heroes journey. Rather, it might have worked better had both Lloyd and his friends were fleshed out to the point that that whole sub-theme about friends being closer than family was given some depth, but beyond the one-dimensional cookie cutter traits as mentioned above the supporting cast is a sea of sameness in slightly different shades of ninja outfits. Maybe the previous films simply set the bar too high and thus the expectations for a movie based on a line of blocks were more than what they should have been, but the fact of the matter is that both “The LEGO Movie” and “The LEGO Batman Movie” exist and that “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” is a pale imitation of those movies that forgets it is a Lego movie at all and drops the throughline of creativity and inventiveness in favor of desperate mimicry and a grating triteness that, if you weren't sure, isn't exactly a winning combination.