As much as it is a massive marketing tool, the “Lego” series of movies from Warner Bros. has become one of the most beloved modern animated franchises in only two films. The third entry in the franchise and the second of 2017, “The Lego Ninjago Movie”, is a true test to the series’ staying power utilizing one of Lego’s more recent and less widely known toy lines, the Ninjago ninjas. While “Ninjago” does successfully capture the same style and humor of its predecessors, which isn’t necessarily a good thing as I’ll explain, it’ is by far the worst of the three movies so far and offers a by-the-books, disjointed experience that shows some aging in the series’ over-the-top, child friendly, self-referential comedy. Still, I couldn’t help but laugh and smile through much of the movie. So without further ado here’s my review of “The Lego Ninjago Movie”.
“The Lego Ninjago Movie” stars Dave Franco as Lloyd Garmadon, a member of the Secret Ninja Warriors whose father, played by Justin Theroux, happens to be the dark ninja Lord Garmadon, the biggest threat to the city of Ninjago. In the fight against his father Lloyd is joined by fellow ninjas Kai (Michael Peña), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), robot Zane (Zach Woods), and Cole (Fred Armisen) as elemental ninjas protecting the city led by Lord Garmadon’s brother, Master Wu (Jackie Chan). Lloyd’s loneliness and lack of a father figure, as well as the negative treatment he receives due to his relationship with Garmadon, lead him to use a powerful weapon to end his father’s reign of terror, introducing a new destructive force to Ninjago in the process that sends both Lord Garmadon and the ninja’s on a journey to find a new weapon to save the city.
“Ninjago” isn’t a horrible movie. In fact, it’s rather entertaining. Warner Bros. has done well at keeping the tone and approach to its “Lego” movies very consistent so if you’ve seen “The Lego Movie” or “The Lego Batman Movie” you know exactly what you’re going to get. The animation is smooth, the voice acting is well done, and the characters are actually kind of memorable making for a neat super hero team and villain that stand out. So why is “Ninjago” such a divisive film in terms of quality? Well where do I start…
How about the fact that even though the movie’s tone is consistent with its predecessors, that approach to comedy has kind of gotten old. My biggest gripe with “Ninjago” is its painfully immature dialogue and script. In “The Lego Movie” it was charming and endearing capturing the spirit of the toys we grew up playing with. In “The Lego Batman Movie” it was appropriate for the setting as the film was meant to be a satire on the “Batman” franchise and superhero films in general. Here the self-referential and ridiculous comedy comes off as forced, especially since the story has some very powerful morals and a great team of heroes to battle a memorable villain. The film could have easily been simply a tale with morals and action with subtle comedy mixed in but instead the over-the-top attempts at laughs dominate the experience and it just doesn’t work. “Ninjago” shifts between serious action, drama and comedic farce very rapidly and without warning which makes the whole thing feel disjointed and makes it difficult to invest in the message of father-son bonding and dealing with one’s inner demons that makes the movie more significant than it honestly deserves to be. I’ll touch on that in a bit later on.
The film benefits from great pacing but lacks the imagination and ingenuity we’ve come to expect from the “Lego” films. Yes we get some great mechs that the ninjas get to drive and Ninjago is a very detailed city, but for the most part the set pieces are bland, the trials the heroes face are unimaginative, and the creativity just isn’t there. It’s pretty clear that Lego took one of their newest hit toy lines, grabbed the most popular aspects of it and stuck them in a movie. I know these films are just advertising in disguise in general, but “Ninjago” is probably the most blatant sinner here driving home how “cool” all the things are on screen and, to the movie’s credit, it really does make you want to go out and buy a kit to build your own adventure. Where the previous films were very good about smoothly incorporating their blatant advertising into the plot, “Ninjago” does the opposite, depending on children’s love for the merchandise and building off of that.
Underneath all that though are some redeeming qualities that make “Ninjago” a passable animated feature. While the humor can be annoying at times, the film has a memorable and complex villain in Lord Garmadon and takes time to explore the rivalry he has with his son, Lloyd, who Garmadon never knew was the green ninja sworn to stop him until the events of the film. Justin Theroux and Dave Franco were perfectly cast for these roles and play off each other well. Theroux specifically manages to be quite a funny antagonist and is by far the best part of this movie while Franco does a nice job capturing the youthful nature of Lloyd Garmadon and the inner struggle he faces for being judged for his lineage as well as growing up without a father. These are tough characters to tackle while keeping them kid friendly and the two actors hold back just enough to make their performances watchable for adults and entertaining for children at the same time.
“Ninjago” benefits from touching themes at its core which, while downplayed, make it a significant and meaningful movie for children and parents to enjoy. The main theme revolves around the complex relationship between Lloyd and his evil father as Lloyd’s frustration about not having a dad in his life boils over, leading to the conflict of the film. This offers an intriguing relationship between the hero and villain that boils over when the two are forced to work together toward a common goal. It makes us think about who we are and why we are the way we are and how interpersonal relationships, especially parental bonds, are so important to us as we grow into our own. There’s fear that Lloyd will become the villain his dad always was and he shows a longing to be a better man, but Garmadon himself also feels hurt and damaged after his son rejects him and forces him to explore his own emotional baggage.
See this is where the movie could have been so much better than it was. Similar powerful themes were injected into the first two “Lego” movies as well, but those movie handled these concepts much smoother and with more respect. Here, while the underlying themes are effective to some degree, they take a back seat to the whimsy and comedy of the film, watering down its more powerful message that, in essence, is really the whole point of this story in the first place. “Ninjago” is fun, colorful, and entertaining and it has heart, but it fails to balance all of this together creating a film that almost tries too hard in some areas and not hard enough in others to hit every note, but lacks execution. Sure it’s funny at times, action packed and deep in its morals, but all of these aspects of the film feel disjointed and random rather that cohesive and well thought out.
“The Lego Ninjago Movie” offers pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from this young franchise and is a very fun experience for anyone who enjoyed the first two films. However, for the first time we see how the “Lego” series’ formula may fail to shine if the material and approach don’t add up. At its core “The Lego Ninjago Movie” has a lot to say and does a decent job providing the action and suspense that makes any action hero movie worthy of watching, but with a bland script full of tired humor and an incohesive narrative that fails to blend it’s action, comedy, and drama together smoothly “Ninjago” is more of an example of how the “Lego” films could go wrong than another example of what could go right. Not to mention the movie is based on a Lego series of toys that are only really popular among the younger members of the audience, making it hard for those who grew up enjoying the toys in their prime to connect with a series that, first and foremost, is meant to be a throwback to a property that crosses generation boundaries thanks to a common childhood joy. “Ninjago” is watchable, it’s fun, and it’s endearing in its own way, but it could have certainly been executed more gracefully to truly capture everything it had to offer.