The LEGO Movie was about LEGO. Everyone likes LEGO! The LEGO Batman Movie was about Batman. Everyone likes Batman! The LEGO Ninjago Movie is about Ninjago. What the hell is Ninjago?
Ninjago (a brief visit to Wikipedia informs me) is a ninja-themed LEGO line. In this, the third of the surprisingly good LEGO films, Ninjago is also a modern Japan-inspired island city whose citizens live in constant fear of the evil Garmadon. The four-armed Garmadon (in the series’ habit of sticking to the physical rules of LEGO, he just has two Minifigure torsos stacked one on the other) seems to invade the city everyday, and everyday is thwarted by Ninjago’s elemental-themed secret ninja force. Fire, ice, water, lightning, and…green? The green ninja is Lloyd Garmadon, who in his public life as an ordinary high school kid gets bullied for being the villain’s estranged son.
Fed up with his peers’ abuse and his father’s distance, Lloyd steals the Ultimate Weapon from the ninja’s Master Wu (Jackie Chan, who also appears in an extraneous live-action framing device) and accidentally unleashes an even more destructive force upon Ninjago. (I won’t spoil the nature of the Big Bad; suffice to say it’s one of the film’s best gags). To save the city, and unlock their true potential, the ninjas will have to make a perilous journey to retrieve the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon. And maybe Lloyd will have to reconcile with his evil father.
The biggest issue facing The LEGO Ninjago Movie is that, other than those familiar with the toys and cartoon, no one really knows what Ninjago is. The LEGO Movie was a film actually about its licensed product, and The LEGO Batman Movie had the ever-popular Caped Crusader to draw in the crowds; but Ninjago has no such cross-audience appeal. As a result, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the flimsiest, most disposable of the LEGO Movies. There are a scant few digs at and subversions of action movie tropes, but nothing to justify Ninjago’s existence beyond selling more toys.
That isn’t to say that The LEGO Ninjago Movie isn’t enjoyable. The jokes, coming thick and fast, hit more than they miss (though without Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s comic sensibilities, or a decades-long character history to draw on, the hit rate isn’t as high as it could be). The animation is still a delight to behold, the computer generated LEGO satisfyingly scuffed and scarred, the ninja and mech-filled action sequences ballets of barely controlled chaos.
Of course, the rapid fire gags and hectic animation are merely the foundation of the LEGO Movie brand, a foundation on which Ninjago barely builds. In fact, it seems content to rehash what its predecessors did before. The live-action framing device is a bafflingly ineffectual attempt to recapture The LEGO Movie’s metafictional charm. Justin Theroux’s performance as Garmadon sounds bizarrely like a mashup of Will Ferrell’s Lord Business and Will Arnett’s Batman. And somebody at Warner Bros or LEGO really needs to speak to a professional, because this is the third time a LEGO Movie has had to deal with daddy issues.
Despite the latent, but perhaps inevitable, cynicism, it’s difficult to dislike The LEGO Ninjago Movie. It’s just as exuberantly irreverent as its predecessors, and its peculiar brand of self-referential comedy is much preferable to the slapstick and fart jokes that litter most other animated fare. I just hope that this isn’t a sign of imminent decline, because the cracks between the bricks are starting to show, and I’d hate to see this wonderful construct fall apart.