The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)
Find Your Inner Piece
When The LEGO Movie hit cinemas in 2014, it surprised both critics and audiences, the wonderfully animated flick offering humor, self-aware smarts and heart whilst proving to be more than just a simple cash-grab from Warner Bros. and the LEGO Corporation. Their next feature, The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), while still gorgeous to look at, wasn’t nearly as triumphant, the superhero parody way too chaotic and unfocused to truly delight. It was, however, saved by the stellar voice work of Will Arnett and Ralph Fiennes. Now, in the second LEGO venture this year, the studio drops viewers directly into their Ninjago universe without really catering to newcomers, who are most likely unfamiliar with the property.
So what’s a Ninjago? Well, it’s a combination of the words ‘ninja’ and ‘LEGO,’ the popular toy line a weird Power Rangers/ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hybrid, one that’s spawned several LEGO sets and a long-running Cartoon Network series.
This third LEGO movie opens with a live-action prologue where a mysterious pawnshop owner, Mr. Liu (Jackie Chan), attempts to charm a young boy (Kaan Guldur) when he notices that his LEGO action figure has been damaged and grazed. After pulling a wood-carved plaything out from a cabinet, Mr. Liu begins to tell the boy a fable-like story whilst trading stares with his lazy cat. We’re then dropped into the aforementioned Asian-esque megalopolis, where the blocky citizens wake up to breakfast talk show Good Morning Ninjago, complete with LEGO-rized versions of U.S. presenters Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts. It’s here where our energetic hosts quickly set the scene, informing us that Ninjago is suffering from periodic assaults, which are being led by a four-armed megalomaniac named Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of fish-themed goons, who want to conquer the harbor metropolis and conveniently live in an active volcano just off the island’s shores. Thankfully, they’re kept at bay by six color-coded teenage ninjas who pilot battle-ready mecha-monsters.
Our champions are Kai (Michael Peña), the red Ninja of Fire; Zane (Zach Woods), the robotic white Ninja of Ice; Cole (Fred Armisen), the disc-spinning, music-loving black Ninja of Earth; Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), the overly cautious blue Ninja of Lightning; Nya (Abbi Jacobson), the silver Ninja of Water, and Lloyd (Dave Franco), whose distinctive elemental power is … ummm … green. Although crowds of people cheer him on when he’s moonlighting as the Green Ninja, Lloyd is having a hard time fitting in, chiefly at high school, seeing as everybody knows that his father is the maniacal Darth Vader-esque baddie who keeps wrecking the city, Lord Garmadon.
Lloyd’s torment hits breaking point when his dad accidentally butt-dials him on his 16th birthday, the would-be tyrant showing little to no interest in his estranged son’s life. Having given up on his father for good, Lloyd channels all his anger into vanquishing Garmadon, who attacks the city shortly after with a ginormous new robo-suit. But, instead of defeating the evildoers, Lloyd winds up unleashing the Ultimate Weapon into the streets of Ninjago, a regular, real-life cat dubbed Meowthra, who promptly begins to tear the place apart. Now, determined to fix up his mess, Lloyd sets out on a near-impossible journey to find the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon, which is hidden deep in the woods, our hero enlisting the aid of his allies and spiritual mentor, Master Wu (Jackie Chan), in order to subdue the Kaiju-like kitty and restore Ninjago back to its former glory.
Directed by animation veterans Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, The LEGO Ninjago Movie opens quite well, the film bombarding audiences with a barrage of pop-culture references, sight-gags and fast paced mechanical battles — heck, there’s even a super quick montage of old-school kung fu movies thrown in. As one would expect, the stop-motion-style animation by Animal Logic is still as dazzling as ever, so too are their photorealistic effects, namely the impressive-looking Meowthra. The spectacular LEGO creations are also terrific — my favorite being a giant robot fitted with a shark-firing canon — moviemakers cramming their digital toy box with as much madness and mayhem as they can muster.
In spite of this, the film begins to lose steam after a decent first act, its by-the-numbers story, which centers on Garmadon’s paternal ignorance, feeling a little aimless. What’s more, our heroes keep pausing to learn kid-friendly, Hallmark-type lessons about courage, forgiveness, acceptance and family, the latter an underlying theme that’s reverberated throughout the entire LEGO cinematic universe — cue the father-son bonding sequence. Other plot points don’t make a lick on sense; for instance Garmadon takes over the entire plastic-brick city by climbing to the top of its tallest building. What the?
Given the superb voice cast, it’s also a little disappointing to note that most of the Secret Ninja Force guys are pretty bland and interchangeable, all six, yes six, screenwriters failing to instil these characters with any sort of personality. Only Justin Theroux, Megamind (2010), stands out as the buffoonish baddie Lord Garmadon, a fiendishly cold father who’s constantly mispronouncing his son’s name (Luh-loyd), obviously stumped by the double ‘l’ — a joke that never really gets old. Dave Franco — who actually had a cameo in The LEGO Movie — is a bit whiny as our protagonist, Jackie Chan, The Karate Kid (2010), seems to be the only Asian-sounding person in the entire oriental expanse, while Olivia Munn, Mortdecai (2015), is unrecognizable as Lloyd’s mom Koko.
Funnily enough, last year’s announcement short, The Master — directed by Jon Saunders — which saw Wu take on an annoying chicken at his dojo, is far better than the entire 101-minute feature it set out to advertise. So, why even bother?
Lacking the adult appeal and cheeky irreverence of its predecessors, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is passable enough entertainment that should delight the kiddies. Parents and older siblings, however, may find themselves mentally checking-out before the second act is over, this hinting that the brand is beginning to show signs of ware. With a plethora of upcoming LEGO titles still on the way, one can only hope that filmmakers re-jig the pieces before building their next model.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie