By Andrew Haas
Warner Animation Group has really been banking on its LEGO film franchise, and who can blame them? Both The LEGO Movie (2014) and spin-off The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) were big hits critically and financially and set a high bar for toy-based movies. But there was still skepticism when they decided to do a spin-off based on Ninjago, one of the company’s themes that isn’t tied to a pre-existing property. Granted, this line has been successful to the point of having an animated series that’s been running since 2011. But since this movie was announced as being a separate entity from the TV series, there was no telling where this was going to go or how it would compare to the other movies. Ultimately, while it may be a nice set, it could use a few more pieces.
The plot: the city of Ninjago is constantly under attack by the evil Lord Garmadon, voiced by Justin Theroux. The only ones able to stop him are a group of teen ninjas with special abilities and giant mechs. However, the “Green Ninja” happens to be Garmadon’s son Lloyd, voiced by Dave Franco, who fights with alongside his friends while trying to get even with his absent parent for making his normal life miserable.
The beginning of this movie makes this seem like LEGO’s answer to Power Rangers. You have the high schoolers who are secretly powerful martial artists and fight evil in colored outfits and robots. But in the spirit of the previous films, it’s played to silly, self-mocking extremes. However, as the film progresses and Ninjago faces different threats, it dives into your typical spiritual journey plot. There are pieces to this film that have a lot of comedic promise. For example, there’s a point in the film where they don’t have their mechs and realize that they don’t exactly live up to the ninja name or their elemental abilities. This makes for a fun, if short-lived, commentary on how the media barely represents the martial arts title given to certain characters. But that’s only a small portion of the plot. There are many other moments like it that have good ideas, but few are able to reach their full potential.
The majority of the story focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between Lloyd and Garmadon, which ends up being a double-edged sword. On one hand, the interactions between the father and son work well and lead to some decent comedic and even emotional moments. I especially loved Garmadon for Theroux’s hilarious performance and how his backstory is handled. However, the whole “the hero’s father is the villain” concept feels a bit stretched as a main plot and it’s made worse by how much it takes away from everyone else.
With Lloyd taking the spotlight, his fellow ninja friends are given little to work with. There are times where they add a little bit of humor and personality, most notably with the White Ninja, who’s a robot pretending to be human. But for the most part they come across as one-dimensional tag-alongs instead of the developed unit they ought to be. The only other character who gets to shine is Master Wu, played by Jackie Chan, who brings plenty of sharp wit whenever he’s on screen. I wish he and the others had more to do, but that’s not the only problem the plot brought to my attention.
The film doesn’t really know how much it wants to represent the Ninjago brand or how much it wants to be like the original The LEGO Movie. A lot of Ninjago feels more like an emulation of what the first film did, from the aforementioned father-son theme to the ridiculous tone to the inclusion of a live action framing device. Granted, it does get a good number of chuckles, especially in scenes involving former henchmen and a monster I can’t talk about without spoilers. But it’s nothing compared to the endless laughter I had with the other films. It’s odd how this film has only loose connections to the TV show, because the way the story is handled feels more like a TV movie than something cinema-worthy. In fact, I’m most curious as to how fans of the cartoon feel about this different interpretation, especially since the show actually gives each character their own arc.
On the bright side, the company behind the other theatrical LEGO films, Animal Logic, once again provides some wonderful animation. The city of Ninjago itself feels like a living town with a creative blend of western and eastern designs. I’m still amazed at the level of detail put into the plastic textures of each individual block. I especially like the way the action is handled, both with the robots and the ninja fights. I’m a little split on the fact that there are a lot more realistic environmental elements this time around. On one hand, it makes the LEGO element feel less special. However, it does lead to some beautiful scenery. One of the directors of this film, Charlie Bean, has done work on cartoons like Samurai Jack and it shows in the framing of each scene. Whether it be brick or nature, the visuals are still wonderful.
Ninjago is an enjoyable family film that struggles when trying to live up to the high bar of its predecessors. There’s still beautiful animation, a solid voice cast, and some pretty funny moments. However, there isn’t quite enough appeal for the adults as for kids this time around and little else stands out from the first film. Overall, it’s far from the best these LEGO movies have to offer, but I’m happy I saw this film and kids will definitely have a fun time. I just hope the franchise is able to bounce back and build something fresh and new with the next installments.