Mark Reviews Movies

The LEGO Ninjago Movie


2 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan

Cast: Jackie Chan, Kaan Guldur, the voices of Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Robin Roberts, Michael Strahan

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild action and rude humor)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 9/22/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 22, 2017

Lacking the spark of creativity that made its franchise predecessors such joys, The LEGO Ninjago Movie has taken the formula established by The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie—a routine plot, wall-to-wall jokes, and a third act that tugs on the heartstrings—but is missing the rebellious spirit of those films. To be fair, this isn't a sequel of or a spinoff to either of those films. Ninjago (pronounced, not "Ninja, go," but "Nin-jago") is an established line of the trademarked brick toys, complete with its own television series, so one has to assume the movie has an established mythology with which to work. That means the movie is self-contained, but it's also trapped in that established world.

It would be unfair, then, to expect the sort of pop-culture mish-mash that the previous, unrelated films did, but that wasn't what made them special, anyway. It was a sense of freedom. This installment doesn't have it.

What it has, instead, is a story about a team of ninjas, who ride around in giant mechanical suits and vehicles, and their fight to protect Ninjago City, located on the eastern coast of Ninjago Island (In case you wondering about the level of creativity in this world, that should answer it), from a villain who tries to take over the metropolis on a daily basis. The little details, as per usual in this franchise, are amusing. The city's morning news broadcast offers reminders of the villain's schemes, from crashing the stock market to defiling Whistler's Mother in the local museum, as well as a warning that, should the bad guy attack, it's best to duck and cover until the chaos is finished.

The little details matter perhaps even more here, since the plot is routine and the characters barely have any personality. Lloyd (voice of Dave Franco), the team's leader, is also the deserted son of the villainous Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux, who masters a quality that sounds like a generic bad guy, albeit with a hint of insecurity in his every pronouncement of ne'er-do-wellness).

The rest of the team includes Cole (voice of Fred Armisen), Jay (voice of Kumail Nanjiani), Kai (voice of Michael Peña), Nya (voice of Abbi Jacobson), and Zane (voice of Zach Woods). They wear different colors, to go along with physical element they represent (earth, fire, lightning, etc.). Beyond cracking a few jokes every so often, that's about the extent of their characters. Well, Zane is a robot, who keeps insisting that he's a "human teenager"—to the acceptance of no one.

The team's mentor is Master Wu (voice of Jackie Chan, who also appears in physical form during a pair of bookend scenes that exist for no narrative reason), who's also Garmadon's younger brother. One might have guessed by now that the movie's heartwarming theme is about family. To be more specific, it's about the male members of a family, since Lloyd's mother (voiced by Olivia Munn) only sits at home worrying about her son. There's a bit more to her character later, but just as Nya is introduced as "a girl" (Nya protests that Wu's narrator should understand "where we're at culturally," which could have been a good lesson for the screenwriters to take to heart), she's basically an outsider.

There are battles in the city, with a brick-built jet, tank, and dragon zipping through the air and down the streets, but besides the fact that there are computer-generated toy models doing all the action, there's nothing to set the action sequences apart from any generic action in a live-action movie. The frantic quality of these sequences also means we miss a lot of the jokes—if they're even there—because the focus is on the action, not the humor.

The humor is here, but the gags that land are mostly throwaways, such as Lloyd asking Wu if he could have the power of the element of surprise, only for everyone to be surprised by the sudden appearance of a ninja who already claimed that power. The most inspired bit here involves Wu's ultimate weapon: a laser pointer that summons curious destruction on four legs (What they call the furry monster is also pretty amusing).

While searching for an "ultimate, ultimate weapon" to stop the new threat to Ninjago City, the ninjas have to team up with Garmadon to traverse the dangerous terrain outside the city. This gives father and son plenty of time to bond, as well as ample opportunities for the movie's three directors (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan) and team of twice-as-many screenwriters to slam home the point that this is all very touching stuff, with lessons about family and forgiveness.

It's sappy, which is something else that—as unfair as it may be to compare this movie to those other two, which are only related to this one by branding—is also new to this franchise. The biggest difference, perhaps, is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie, despite its constant joking, might be taking this material too seriously. This one feels like it's telling a story in order to sell toys, instead of letting the toys serve as the spirit for a story.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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