‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’ Review: Not Quite a Blockbuster
Sit through the end credits of The LEGO Ninjago Movie and you will learn it was made by three different directors, nine different writers, five different editors, and a whopping 17 credited producers. If you’ve been paying attention up to that point, that’s not shocking information.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is sorely lacking in the one department that distinguished its predecessors from the competition in the animated kids movie marketplace: A unique personality. Both 2014’s The LEGO Movie and 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie had their own identities with quirky offbeat humor. The LEGO Ninjago Movie mostly settles for being an energetic facsimile of the two. It’s got different pieces, but it could have been built from the same instruction manual as the previous films.
It’s set in the land of Ninjago, a LEGO line that blends martial arts and mysticism with high-tech robots and gadgets. Five ninja warriors with different elemental abilities (and corresponding colored uniforms) pilot giant robots and defend their city from supernatural bad guys. (When I was a kid, we called this concept Power Rangers.) The film isn’t quite an origin story; it begins with the team already in place. There’s Zane the Ice Ninja (Zach Woods), Nya the Water Ninja (Abbi Jacobson), Jay the Lightning Ninja (Kumail Nanjiani), Kai the Fire Ninja (Michael Peña), and their leader Lloyd, the Earth Ninja (Dave Franco). Lloyd is a good kid who wants to make the world a better place, a goal complicated somewhat by the fact that the world’s greatest threat, a magically powered conquerer named Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), is actually his estranged father. (When I was a kid, we called this concept Star Wars.)
Theroux’s Garmadon is easily Ninjago’s standout character; he’s a swaggering, power-mad egomaniac who’s also a raging swirl of inadequacies and unresolved family issues. He gets all the best lines, and there’s a clever flashback that reveals how he fell in love with Lloyd’s mother (an underused Olivia Munn). He’s also very similar in both conception and vocal performance to Will Arnett’s LEGO Batman; meanwhile Franco’s Lloyd, with his journey from self-doubt to confidence, is an awful lot like Emmet from The LEGO Movie. The rest of the ninjas, even with the great comic actors behind them, are pretty generic and interchangeable. Their adventure feels bland in a way neither of the previous LEGO movies ever did.
To some extent, that’s because directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan are working from a disadvantage the directors of The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie never had to contend with. The earlier LEGO movies featured characters from a dozen or more pop culture franchises; part of the fun were the surprise appearances from famous heroes (and famous voices) you weren’t expecting to see. It was interesting watching characters from different fictional universes interact for the first time, and it lent the films an air of unpredictability. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is only set in the Ninjago world with Ninjago characters, and it sorely misses that feeling that anything could happen at anytime.
The surprise cameos in the other LEGO Movies made sense; they were informed by kids’ anything-goes approach to play. When LEGO Ninjago makes the occasional leap into that sort of surreal playtime logic, it doesn’t fit quite as well. The film’s main plot is supposedly told by a shopkeeper, played by Jackie Chan, to a young boy who randomly wanders into his store in live-action scenes that bookend the film. Chan’s regal air of wisdom doesn’t match the tenor of the story he tells, where the monster ravaging Ninjago City, Godzilla-style, turns out to be a live-action house cat. There’s a disconnect between the frame story and the animated material (which does look slick while still capturing the charm of building blocks come to life).
Even if Ninjago marks a significant step down from the other LEGO movies, it’s worth noting that it continues the series’ mission to subvert the usual good/evil dynamics in children’s films and, in doing so, to try and instill some important values in younger viewers. These movies are loud and action-packed (and Ninjago is probably the loudest and most action-oriented of the three) but they all eventually come around to teaching children that violence is not the best solution, and that someone who acts mean or cruel sometimes has a very good reason to be upset. In each case, the core conflict can only be resolved through communication, empathy, and teamwork.
But let’s face it: The LEGO Movies were always better than they had any right to be. At their core, even with their clever writing, colorful visuals, and memorable voice casts, they were still feature-length toy commercials. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is just the first installment in the series that actually feels like one.