The third toy story inspired by the Lego brand is as fanciful, funny, and flawed as the rest.
The Lego brand is all about creativity and wonder, and its movie franchise continues to capture that perfectly. The big challenge of The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie, and now The Lego Ninjago Movie has been to go beyond not just the iconic brick-based construction toys but also the plethora of Lego merchandise, which includes direct-to-video movies, and also the memetic fandom, which produces both serious and comedic visual content. The resulting formula for the movies is irreverent parody, much of it self-lampooning, with crazy action and a calculated dose of sweetness.
There are two more fantastic ingredients to the Lego movie franchise that aren’t as consistent. One is its mainstreaming of mashup art, through its exploitation of Lego’s cross-branding toy sets as well as the stable of Warner Bros. properties. That cross-over quality is found in the first two films but not in Ninjago. The other ingredient is the integration of live-action elements, which Batman lacks but Ninjago brings back. These stories are not set in some animated universe where everything is made of Lego. They exist in our world and involve toys come to life — yet unlike Toy Story, here it’s realized as in the imagination of the builders and the players, not in the actual sentience of the toys themselves.
That meta quality was the surprise twist of The Lego Movie, while The Lego Ninjago Movie opens with its live-action framing device: a young boy (Kaan Guldur) wanders into an antique shop and is befriended by its agile owner (Jackie Chan). Inspired by the kid’s Lego figure, the old man begins to tell the tale of Ninjago. We’re then transported to the colorful, versatile Lego brick-based island city with the name combining “ninja” with “Lego.” Across the bay from Ninjago is the volcanic lair of Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), a four-armed master of evil who so often tries to conquer the city that the news forecasts invasions just as they do the weather. And every time, Garmadon and his army are defeated by a team of young, mech-driving ninjas.
The catch at the center of this cyclical premise is that the leader of this Secret Ninja Force, individually designated by his green costume and dragon-themed vehicle, is Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), son of that destructive villain. Only his teammates know his secret identity — outside of his undercover heroic duties Lloyd is hated by his peers for being the spawn of the city’s constant threat — and eventually they realize what’s keeping them from stopping Garmadon for good is Lloyd’s hesitance to annihilate his father, despite the fact that he’s been personally absent as a parent for the last 16 years and is also a terrible, terrorizing tyrant.
Family relationships are at the heart of the Lego movie franchise, as are basic plots of good guys and bad guys and outcast protagonists. Ninjago centers on the familiar conflict of a paternal adversary, but the direction the movie takes this idea in is more original and metaphorical and humorous than we tend to see (in that regard it tops this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). The Lego movies could easily fall on conventional storytelling even as they blatantly spoof the action genre (i.e. saying out loud there needs to be a school bus full of kids trapped on a suspension bridge) and the brand (more jokes about the characters’ physical traits), but instead there’s a refreshing commitment to cleverness around every corner.
The most brilliant piece in Ninjago‘s construction is something totally silly but undeniably hilarious, and it’s something that I refuse to divulge here since it’s best encountered as a surprise. But it fits with The Lego Movie‘s employment of a Krazy Glue tube and cap from the “real world”as a significant prop. Other comedy comes primarily through the dialogue and the voice work of Silicon Valley co-stars Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods, both of them members of the Secret Ninja Force, and Theroux, who sounds like a perfect blend of Will Ferrell’s big bad from The Lego Movie and Will Arnett’s Lego Batman, whether intentional or not. Jackie Chan is also amusing in the role of the secret ninjas’ mentor, Master Wu.
Sure, some of the novelty of the franchise is wearing off, and Ninjago shares some of the problems of its predecessors, such as its overly busy and confusing action shots and sequences and a superfluous abundance of side characters — there’s a line in the movie telling the audience to wake up to modern female representation only for the notion to ironically fall flat given that there is no strong female presence anywhere, not even from the girl ninja (Abbi Jacobson) who utters the statement. Presumably some fans of the Lego Ninjago toys, games, and TV series might additionally take issue with this movie’s goofy mockery.
You can tell there’s a lot of love for the materials being mocked, though, and a lot of care put into the joke writing and the animation and the respect for different types of audiences, young and old, fan and non-fan. The numerous screenwriters and directors involved do an exceptional job with the world building that then allows for a precise and quite funny deconstruction, both physical and metaphysical. There could be a bit more recognition of the generalization of Asian cultural influences, but perhaps a sequel could remedy that. For the most part, The Lego Ninjago Movie comes together wonderfully.