Following on the success of The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman movie comes The Lego Ninjago Movie, a plastic brick take on kung fu films. Sort of. Ninjago is a Lego-created property that debuted in 2011. Borrowing from Captain Planet, and Power Rangers, the story centers on six teenagers who secretly fight evil as a team. They wear matching outfits and each is aligned with an elemental power. Being a toyline and a TV show, the design choices are as much influenced by how cool they look on a box in an aisle of Target as they do for how they contribute to the story.
This film continues the franchise’s dual focus on father-son stories and how we tell stories. To that end, it opens with a sleepy scene in which the proprietor of an antique store (Jackie Chan) talks to a precocious child (yawn). That in and of itself is a trope, but it just doesn’t have the energy of the other films. That changes quickly when we transition to the Lego world, and we are dropped into a (hilarious) morning show spoof starring Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan. We learn that Ninjago City is frequently attacked by the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). This makes life difficult for his son, Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), who is hated by everyone else in the city, though his alter ego, The Green Ninja, is beloved. The relationship between the two is the main thrust of the film, best summarized by Lloyd telling his father “You ruined my life,” and the lack of self-awareness in his father’s reply: “How could I ruin your life, I wasn’t even there?”
As rewarding as that journey ends up being, the film could have benefitted from using its side characters more. Lloyd’s only friends are his fellow secret ninjas: Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Kai (Michael Peña), the robotic Zane (Zach Woods), and Cole (Fred Armisen), and have the “elements” of Lightning, Water, Fire, Ice, and Earth, respectively. And Lloyd is just…green, which also leads to the best gag in the film. They are taught by Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who freely admits they are horrible at traditional skills. Nanjiani is a perfect fit for a hyper-anxious ninja, and Woods’ casting is right on the nose. Here’s hoping Jacobson takes more voice work, as she might have been the most effective supporting player. But hey, Cole has a mecha that he pilots by spinning vinyl records, which is 110% awesome.
While the film opens with a Shaw Brothers homage and an antique store run by Jackie Chan, the film free associates its Asian inspiration, often using it as a pastiche of design choices than drawing on a range of specific influences. Unlike the characters in Lego Batman, all of the characters in this film use the traditional yellow plastic, whether voiced by Dave Franco or Kumail Nanjiani, one of the two major choices that put the film’s aesthetic artifice front and center.
The other, of course, is Meowthra. To us, Meowthra is an adorable cat. To the citizens of Ninjago City, she is a kaiju causing citywide destruction. The animation is excellent, as she is seamlessly integrated into the computer generated plastic bricks. But her presence is a key reminder of the franchise premise, that these are kids playing with toys. It’s seriously effective, and something unique to this toys-come-life franchise.
The Lego Ninjago Movie is the least hyper of the three films so far, which gives it a slightly different feel. And while it employs its fair share of pop culture gags, it doesn’t bring them front and center as relentlessly as its predecessors. Those were the right choices for those films, but trying to broaden the tone a bit works in this film’s favor.
The Lego Ninjago Movie opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.