The exotic, plastic-brick, vaguely Asian-y city of Ninjago is under constant threat from the evil, four-armed Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of shark-themed minions. Luckily, the city is protected by a team of six ninja warriors who pilot giant Lego robots – think Power Rangers but, y’know, Lego-y. Unbeknownst to all, the six heroes are in fact teenagers at Ninjago High School who have been trained by the inscrutable Master Wu (Jackie “my cheque, please” Chan). And doubly unbeknownst, one of their number, the Green Ninja, is in fact Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), whose familial link to the would-be conqueror makes him a social outcast. However, when Garmadon actually manages to conquer to city, Lloyd and his teammates must look deep within themselves to… ah, you get the gist.
It took three directors, six credited writers, and seven people under the dubious “story by” banner to come up with The LEGO Ninjago Movie‘s rather soulless and generic story, and perhaps those numbers are indicative of the root problem: it feels like it’s designed by a committee with a firm grasp of market demographics and a dismal understanding of plot, character, and purposefulness.
We were two for two with Lord and Miller’s excellent The LEGO Movie and Chris McKay’s The LEGO Batman Movie, both of which transcended their presumed “kids movie” genre box to become something across-the-board entertaining and, even more surprising, meaningful.
Ninjago doesn’t do that.
What it does is squander an incredibly talented voice cast (Michael Pena, Kumail Najiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn) on a stunningly hoary hero’s journey, wrapped in a weird Orientalist mythology that is happy to swipe the visual cues from Chinese and Japanese culture and history, but draws the line at actually foregrounding characters from those cultures; all the actors of Asian descent are in supporting roles, while culturally Ninjago feels like Southern California by way of the Shaw Brothers backlot – it’s very, very American.
The world feels ramshackle and forced – there’s a fine line between the freewheeling creativity of The LEGO Movie, which managed to incorporate huge and varying swathes of pop culture and still feel of a piece. Problems start right out of the gate when we’re served a live action framing device ala The Neverending Story in which Jackie Chan, as charming and avuncular as ever, drops wisdom on a bullied child – how this ties in to the plastic brick universe of the main narrative is never made clear, nor is the “physics” or “cosmology” of the Ninjago setting (that may sound high-minded but, again, reflect on The LEGO Movie, which pulled off a stunning late-act reveal by connecting the “real” and “Lego” universes).
It all feels lazy, poorly thought out and redundant – which is kind of amazing when you consider the incredible work and attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the film. We’re not yet at a point where these towering Lego creations are visually uninteresting, praise the lord, and Animal Logic deserve plaudits for some of the spectacular builds in the movie – not the least of which is Gormadon’s giant robot, complete with shark-firing canon.
That doesn’t make for a good story, though, and Ninjago‘s story fails on some really basic levels, like cause and effect. Garmadon conquers Ninjago simply by climbing to the top of its tallest tower, which works fine when you’re five and play-fighting on a playground fort, but makes zero sense in this context. It feels like we’re expected to just go with it because it’s a kids’ movie, which absolutely flies in the face of why the previous Lego films worked at all.
Being charitable, kids who are into the Ninjago franchise will in all likelihood get a kick out of this one – there are references to mythology elements outside of the frame of the film that might give a little rill of continuity joy to the faithful (or they may be meaningless – it’s hard to say), but the simple truth is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not the cross-demographic joy that its predecessors are. In fact, it feels like the lazy offering we expected back in those cynical days when they first announced a Lego movie, and that’s pretty damning.