By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
Going into the second theatrical LEGO movie of 2017, I didn’t know much about the source Ninjago universe, other than it decides that the only way you can make ninjas even cooler than they already are is to give them elemental powers and giant Gundam-style mechs to pilot and tear shit up. It’s literally the exact opposite of what a ninja is, but it’s also the foundation for an animated film based on a line of toys targeted at eight-year-olds, so do you really have the energy to criticize something like that?
The story focuses on the city of Ninjago, which is under constant threat from sadistic tetrabrachius Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Garmadon resides in a volcano just off the Ninjago shoreline, where he plots his takeover of Ninjago, fires generals both professionally and literally straight out of the volcano, and builds shark-themed robots.
Always at the ready are a team of ninjas headed by high school Lloyd (Dave Franco). Lloyd happens to be the estranged son of Garmadon, which draws the ire of the entire city and paints Lloyd as an outcast. His ninja friends (Fred Armisten, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Pena, Abbi Jacobson, and Zach Woods) are his only friends. During their greatest battle, Lloyd accidentally summons Meowthra, a giant, live cat, who threatens to level Ninjago more quickly than Garmadon could ever dream. If Ninjago is to be saved, Lloyd and Garmadon need to sort out some daddy issues immediately.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is another reminder of how the current trend of sugar-rush insanity that has become the status quo for animated movies can still feel mostly fresh. Following the blueprint set by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the jokes come at a breakneck pace, and many of them land, while others are noticeably borrowed from the previous films, to diminished returns.
It adheres closely to the original film’s flavor of comedy that is daringly zany and content with making a joke even if only a tiny handful of people would get it. It’s commendable that the movie puts equal effort into an insult about smelling like a butt as it does a live-action montage of fake martial arts movies that includes a martial arts sequel to Locke, the little-seen 2013 Tom Hardy indie.
When the movie has to get down to business with Garmadon and Lloyd being forced to reconcile and become an effective father-son unit, the vocal talents of Franco and Theroux shine, as both actors are clearly having a very good time.
Ironically, what mostly sets Ninjago apart is the the predictable, somewhat unsatisfying plot. More so than the other two theatrical LEGO movies, Ninjago follows a very basic student-and-teacher narrative, and adds some more of the familiar father-son dynamic that each film has used so far. While The LEGO Movie and Batman both utilized the trope in unique ways, Ninjago is just a standard alienation story wrapped in a standard “find your inner power” narrative, and it just isn’t as unique or compelling. Even the live-action framing device feels limp and compulsory compared to how The LEGO Movie made it such an effective piece of the story.
There is some fun to be had with the chemistry between Franco and Theroux, especially in the way the two characters are forced to bond together to save Ninjago, but with as often as the movie calls back to jokes and references in the earlier movies, it’s difficult not to notice that yet another examination of a father-son relationship is operating on a much lower level than what we’ve seen so far.
Even the great elements of the movie don’t quite fit together, no doubt a byproduct of the trio of directors and at least nine different writers credited for the movie. There’s the great humor of the cinematic LEGO brand, but its weirdly specific and off-kilter vibe that usually works so well doesn’t play nice with the kid-focused story of the Ninjago universe. So far, the series had done well with weaving adult themes and clean adult-focused humor with more juvenile jokes and bright animation to attract the kids. They are almost modern hallmarks of an effective, broadly-appealing family films. They work because every element works so well together. The LEGO Ninjago Movie doesn’t quite work because most of the elements are there, but they don’t know how to come together for a satisfying movie. Niche comedy is slightly less important than selling Ninjago toys, and that’s a bit troubling.
At the end of the day, Ninjago is more LEGO. This is both a good and a bad thing, because while it has some of the most memorable highs of the franchise so far, it’s also got pretty much all of the lowest lows. That doesn’t make it outright bad–in fact, it’s still a lot of fun–it’s just a bit lackluster when put against the very high bar the previous two movies have set. The comedy is still very funny, but the by-the-numbers plot takes away some of the heart. It’s possible that the recipe for these LEGO films is going stale, but it’s better to hope that the energy is still there even while Ninjago is missing a few ingredients. This is a great franchise, and it will remain that way if the effort focuses on the soul rather than the brand–which is exactly where The LEGO Ninjago Movie miscalculated.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone says “Ninjago”
Do a Shot: every time Garmadon treats Lloyd like shit
Take a Drink: whenever someone says “butt”
Do a Shot: for every joke borrowed from a different LEGO movie