The Lego Movies have to be one of the more interesting movie franchises of today, for the simple reason that it’s become more of a style of movie in and of itself, as opposed to a series that leads from one traditional sequel to the next. The 2014 original was based on the Lego brand itself, and took advantage of the toy line’s connections with various other media franchises to squeeze in as many cameos and references as they could. The second installment; The Lego Batman Movie, was released earlier in 2017, and took things to the next level by actually being an entry in one of the world’s most established pop culture franchises, while simultaneously paying homage and parody to said franchise. Now we have the franchise’s third outing, The Lego Ninjago Movie which – although perhaps a step backward from Lego Batman in concept – nonetheless delivers on the laughs and energy this series has become known for.
I say The Lego Ninjago Movie is a step back in concept simply because, well, Lego Ninjago is a ninja-themed line of Lego toys. The Lego Batman Movie’s greatest joy was that it was very much a Batman movie, but one where the characters could openly reference the different cinematic continuities of the franchise, have some fun at the expense of the 60s TV series, and in which the Joker could ally with Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. By simply reverting to a specific line of the Lego toys, the allure of seeing one of the most iconic pop culture franchises turned on its head is no longer present. Lego Ninjago is still a good time, and at times quite hilarious, but it does lack that extra punch that stemmed from established characters like Batman and Joker acting so out-of-character.
One major difference between The Lego Ninjago Movie and its two predecessors is that it begins with a live-action sequence, in which a young boy walks into a Chinese antique shop, where the shop’s owner (Jackie Chan) tells the story of the rest of the film, which is presented in animated, Lego form.
The rest of the movie takes place in the land of Ninjago, which is something of a parody of franchises such as Power Rangers, where modern cities are frequently attacked by megalomaniacs in giant mechs, which are then consistently defeated by a team of heroic ninjas, who pilot their own, animal-shaped mechs.
The villain here is Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who dreams of conquering the world of Ninjago. He is constantly thwarted, however, by the efforts of a group of young ninjas, lead by the wise Master Wu (also Jackie Chan). These ninjas are all assigned a different color and element: Kai (Michael Pena) is the red ninja of fire. Jay (Kamail Nanjiani) is the blue ninja of lightning. Nya (Abbi Jacobson) is the silver ninja of water. Cole (Fred Armisen) is the black ninja of Earth. Zane (Zach Woods) is the white ninja of ice… and also a robot. Finally, the hero of the story is Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), the green ninja of…green (his lack of a proper element is a running gag in the film), and is also Lord Garmadon’s estranged son.
That relationship between Lloyd and his super villain father is at the heart of the movie, with Lloyd being shunned in his personal life due to his dad “ruining everything,” and hating that battling his own father on a daily basis has become his job. After Lord Garmadon creates a mech that’s too powerful for the ninjas to take down, Lloyd attempts to defeat Lord Garmadon once and for all by using “the Ultimate Weapon,” which only makes matters worse for Ninjago by inadvertently releasing a monster on the city. Garmadon finally succeeds in conquering Ninjago (by means of climbing the tallest building and putting a flag on top of it), and soon finds out that the green ninja is his son Lloyd. The ninjas set out on an adventure to find the “Ultimate Ultimate Weapon” which can defeat the monster, and Garmadon, not wanting the monster to destroy the city he tried so hard to conquer, decides to join the ninjas on their quest (he may also want to get to know the son he abandoned, but is so caught up in his cartoonish villainy that he doesn’t realize it himself).
The premise is pretty simple, and even evokes The Lego Batman Movie’s key relationship between hero and villain, albeit depicting them as father and son, as opposed to two friends having a spat. The adventure at hand is a lot of fun, and the humor is as strong as ever (I laughed out loud on more than one occasion). The main plot may be simple stuff, but the moment-to-moment punchlines and gags help elevate it into a satisfying piece of family entertainment. Lord Garmadon, in particular, is one of the best characters in any of these Lego movies so far.
The animation also remains pleasing to look at, with the mock-stop-motion visuals still being as lively than ever, even if the novelty of its look has worn off a bit by this point.
If The Lego Ninjago Movie has any notable drawbacks, it’s that it lacks the inventiveness of its predecessor. As consistently funny as it is, Lego Ninjago never pulls off the surprising gags, references and wit that Lego Batman delivered at pretty much every turn. And when the film comes to its “emotional” finale, well, it’s so similar to the finales of both of its preceding Lego Movies, that it gets to the point of detracting a little bit from it.
While The Lego Ninjago Movie is a lot of fun on its own merits, it lacks that little something extra that made The Lego Batman Movie one of my favorite films of 2017. Ironically enough, by having its own original characters instead of beloved franchise icons, it actually feels more restrained creatively. It isn’t able to tinker around with decades worth of source material in order to create something fresh and new like its predecessor did.
These Lego Movies have a lot going for them, with their ability to capitalize off so many series and brand names to shed new light on familiar faces. This series has provided an appropriately similar sense of fun to playing with toys to create stories, and it seems like there’s a lot that can be done with it before it starts showing signs of fatigue. It’s a little underwhelming then, that Lego Ninjago will be followed by a more direct sequel to the original Lego Movie (though hopefully it can find ways to branch out and separate from its predecessor). The Lego Ninjago Movie is another fun trip to the toy chest. But here’s hoping that soon enough, the series will once again dig as deep into that toy chest as they did with Lego Batman, and recreate that joy we all once had of playing with toys of our favorite characters to tell stories that, frankly, had no right having those characters be a part of them.