O Master Builders, where art thou?
There was an incredible perfection to 2014's The Lego Movie that continued into its sequel, The Lego Batman Movie. Against all odds, these films felt like so much more than the commerce-fueled Lego cash grabs they could have been. The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn't quite capture that same perfection--which isn't to say it's a bad Lego movie. It's just slightly disappointing in light of how great the last two were.
These brick-building blockbusters have become well known for their meta humor and fourth-wall-breaking action that melds elements of the real world with fantasy Lego locations. That's no different in Lego Ninjago, despite it being based on an existing Lego franchise that already has its own show.
Ninjago follows a squad of six high school-aged ninjas--voiced by Dave Franco, Abbi Jacobson, Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, and Zach Woods--locked in perpetual battle with Justin Theroux's Lord Garmadon. Garmadon wants to take over the city of Ninjago, while our hero Ninjas and their leader, Jackie Chan-voiced Master Wu, use mystical powers and giant mechs to foil his every plan. What Lord Garmadon doesn't know is that the Green Ninja is actually Lloyd Garmadon, his son. Unsurprisingly, family drama ensues when Lloyd is unmasked.
The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn't quite strike the right balances between humor and drama or action and exposition, and as a result it feels overlong and a bit meandering, a step back from the previous Lego films. For every fun fight scene or great gag there's a dry conversation, a lengthy monologue, or an exposition dump that goes on way too long.
It also gives way too much time to Lloyd and Garmadon simply chatting or arguing with another for extended scenes, at the loss of any development or subplots involving the many other characters, whose talented voice actors are terribly underused. Jacobson's Water Ninja, the one female member of the crew, barely has anything at all to do; and although Lloyd's mom, voiced by Olivia Munn, is an important part of the overall story, she's not actually in most of the movie.
On the other hand, Lego Ninjago is as wildly imaginative as you expect, and funny as well. The action, from citywide battle scenes to a duel between Garmadon and Master Wu, is mesmerizingly complex, the animation truly impressive. Like its predecessors, The Lego Ninjago Movie never loses sight of its Lego aesthetic, even as it gets crazier and crazier (although it does abandon the fun "Master Builder" mythology in favor of more generic martial arts stuff, which is a bit disappointing).
A particular high point comes when an actual live-action cat enters the fray between Garmadon and the Ninjas. Ninjago's residents run screaming for their lives from "Meowthra," the ultimate weapon--summoned to the island city with a giant laser pointer.
Lego Ninjago is also a deeply emotional film, even with all the high-flying dragon mechs and minifig evil generals being shot out of volcanoes. The flip-side of all that time being dedicated to Lloyd's relationship with his father is that their journey together is really well fleshed-out. One of the film's producers, Dan Lin, told GameSpot in a recent interview, "Our goal is to make you cry in these movies." Even its most patently absurd scenes are imbued with some real emotion, so the movie may very well succeed there.
You'll definitely want to call and/or hug your dad when it's over, no matter how old you are. And as long as kids don't start chucking Lego missiles at their family cats, Ninjago's overall legacy will turn out to be a net positive.
The Lego Ninjago Movie hits theaters Sept. 22.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Funny, smart writing||Side characters, especially females, neglected|
|Mesmerizing animation||Too much dialogue and exposition|
|Surprisingly heartfelt||No mention of Master Builder mythology|
|Great for all ages|