The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) Review
A FORMULAIC LEGO BRICK TOO FAR
Back in 2014, Warner. Bros. Pictures (under the name of Warner Bros. Animation Group) produced a surprising smash with The LEGO Movie. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind 21 Jump Street (and its 22 Jump Street sequel), The LEGO Movie dropped viewers into an imaginary cinematic constructed world of LEGOs, telling a creative tale that was full of humor, talented voice-actors, dazzling animation, and some heartwarming drama. Surprisingly, The LEGO Movie was met with overwhelming positive reviews from fans and critics, garnishing nearly $470 million at the box office against its $60 million production budget. The success of The LEGO Movie fueled Warner Bros. with the idea that a cinematic universe could be formed around the property idea of the popular toy brand. Earlier this year, that very same idea was debuted in the form in the first spin-off LEGO Movie titled The LEGO Batman Movie. Directed by Chris McKay, this spin-off adventure continued The LEGO Movie formula, but also introduced new elements such as rifting / playing on the lore of the “cape crusader” and his many foes that he’s come across over the years. Like its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie was met with huge success and, while it didn’t surpass The LEGO Movie at the box office (the film grossed $312 million) still received critical praise from critics and its viewers; proving this franchise can go beyond its original toy brand form and have some lasting effect in today’s current movie world. Now, only a few months after the release on The LEGO Batman Movie, Warner Bros. Animation Group and directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan present the second spin-off film to The LEGO Movie with the animated film The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Is it “third time’s a charm” for this movie franchise or has that certain “magic” of the previous two films gone out with Ninjago?
In the faraway land of Ninjago, its citizens are frequently attacked by the villainous warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) to the point where his constant strikes have become an almost daily routine to everyone. This makes things a bit difficult for Garmadon’s teenage son, Lloyd (Dave Franco, who has become a social outcast because of his connection to Ninjago’s number one evildoer. Raise by his mother Misako (Olivia Munn) and harboring deep resentment from his absentee father, Lloyd appears to be a normal high school teenager, but secretly leads a Ninja Force that consists of his school friends, including Kai (Michael Pena), Zane (Zach Woods), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jackson, and Cole (Fred Armisen). Under the tutelage of Lloyd’s uncle, Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who dispels his wisdom to help the students realize their potential, these six teenagers use their skills (and mechs) to protect their city and regularly save Ninjago from being conquered by Garmadon’s forces. During one of their many confrontations, Lloyd’s personal feelings towards Garmadon cause him to act irrationally, resulting in unleashing a greater threat upon Ninjago. To stop this new menace from destroying all, Master Wu instructs his ninja students to journey to the far side of the island, embarking on an epic quest where Lloyd must summon his courage and confront his “daddy” issues as Garmadon pursued them, who’s buried his emotions deep within.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
What can I say…. I grew up playing with LEGOs. And I mean like the original ones (i.e. Town, Pirates, Castle, Space, etc.) way before they started coming out with their newer franchise brand sets (i.e. Ninjago). Like everyone, I eventually grew out of LEGOs as I became an adult, which is why when I heard about The LEGO Movie been released I totally geeked out with nostalgia. The LEGO Movie was fun animated LEGO film with a colorful cast of characters (and the voice talents behind them) as well as a humorous and heartfelt message behind the movie. Naturally, I was looking forward to a sequel to The LEGO Movie, but it was treated to fun, hilarious, and entertaining spin-off film with The LEGO Batman Movie. Like its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie offered up the same type of fun and thematically amusing adventure, but I did like how played upon the Batman’s lore, especially with all the villains within the Batman villains as well as the other iconic film licensed villains. All in all, The LEGO Batman Movie was indeed a worth spin-off to The LEGO Movie, opening up the possibilities for other LEGO animated films as we wait for The LEGO Movie 2 to come out.
This leads me to talking about the second spin-off LEGO animated feature with The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Like the previous two movies, I was definitely intrigued by it and was immediately caught up within the film’s various trailers, including the five-minute animated short titled “The Master” that was attached to 2016’s animated film Storks. Also, I do remember that there was an animated show called Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, which began in 2011 and is currently in its seventh season as of 2017, but I never actually watched it. Anyways, back to the movie review, judging from the trailers The LEGO Ninjago Movie, the animation looked good as well as the voice talents, so I was pretty sure that it was going to be another slam dunk. So, what did I think of it? Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t live up the same hype that The LEGO Batman Movie was able to achieve as The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a somewhat underwhelming installment in this franchise, hampered by a thin script and weak characters. There’s still some fun to be had, but the formula for these movie is beginning to become stale.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is directed Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan (phew…. that’s a lot of directors for just one movie). While all three (separately) have an extensive background as either character designers and / or storyboard artists on various animated cartoon projects (i.e. Timon & Pumbaa, How to Train Your Dragon, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, and Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, none of them have directed a major theatrical animated feature, making The LEGO Ninjago Movie their biggest endeavor collectively to tackle. Given that task, Bean Fisher, and Logan have the benefit of creating a movie to an already established franchise (both as LEGO toy brand and the LEGO Movie franchise), which works in their favor when helming this animated picture. That not say that this movie is rehash of what’s come before as the film’s backdrop setting and story is tweaked enough for the feature to slightly new and different from other two movies. While the first film presented a tale of a “underdog” and the second film utilized Batman’s comic book source material, this film (loosely) uses the Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu TV shows general narrative plot, but also uses the classic “coming-of-age-story with a LEGO / ninja-themed premise. Additionally, The LEGO Ninjago Movie keeps the formula from the previous films as many fans will be pleased that there’s a lot humor, heart, and action throughout the movie. It’s a curse and blessing, but more on that below in a few paragraphs.
Much like the other two LEGO Movies, The LEGO Ninjago Movie looks (visually speaking) amazing. The amount of detail input into this CGI LEGO world gets better and better with each LEGO Movie installment as this new movie is definitely the most detailed with its lush vibrant colors and fluid animation style. The setting of Ninjago is also somewhat unique as the previous two LEGO films have yet to explored such a Ninja-themed world; a splice between an urban modern city as well as classic ninja-style motif world. Additionally, the film’s score, which is composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, is pretty good as well as a few catchy musical songs that play in the movie, including “Heroes” by Blaze n Vill, “Found My Place” by Oh, Hush!, and “Operation New Me” by Jingle Punks. However, nothing still can beat “Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie.
Problems do quickly begin to arise up within The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which ultimately hinders the movie from being on-level with The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie. While I did say that the film has a lot of same humor and heart from the previous films, its follows it almost to “T”, which makes the movie clearly predictable as it tries to work its formula into this narrative construct. The result is that the movie, while still entertaining, is subpar to other two LEGO films, feeling derivate its story / plot and doesn’t have an affect execution style that those particular movies were able to pulled off and ultimately achieved at. Also, speaking of the story, the narrative plot seems quite simplistic. While the “father / son” relationship angle works for the basic premise of the feature, the rest of The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s story is quite bland to the point of being generic. Perhaps the reason for this was the fact that the movie’s screenplay was penned by six (yes…six!) writers, including Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington. I guess the expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” or “too many hands in the pot” comes into play when it comes to the film’s script being written. Because of this, the movie’ story just doesn’t come together well-enough, with too many ideas being floated around. Personally, since a lot older audience viewers (myself included) don’t know much about the LEGO Ninjago brand (toys, cartoon show, etc.), the movie should’ve been presented as an origin story, showing how Master Wu’s Secret Ninja Force came together. Unfortunately, the trio of directors and the plethora of writers didn’t see it that way, producing a film that has a good concept, but not enough to fully-realized and developed. Also, the ending, while it comes with a heartfelt message and revelation, seems a put lacking.
With the main story being primarily focused on the relationship dynamics between Lloyd and Garmadon (in their evil father / hero son relationship), the voice actors responsible for bringing these characters to life (vocally) have to imbue enough strength and weakness to make their characters come full-circle by the film’s end. Luckily, it’s effectively done so, thanks to actors Dave Franco and Justin Theroux. Franco (aka James Franco’s little brother, known for his roles in 21 Jump Street, Nerve, and Now You See Me, is great as Lloyd Garmadon, a troubled-teenager who’s trying to find his place in the world and come to terms with his “daddy” issues, as he brings enough humorous bits as well as vulnerably to the character. Likewise, Theroux, known for his roles in The Girl on the Train, The Leftovers, and American Psycho, delivers one of the best voice acting in these LEGO Movies (right up there with Chris Pratt’s Emmett and Will Arnett’s Batman. His portrayal of Lord Garmadon, an evil warlord who is seeks world domination and has conflicted feelings about Lloyd being his son, is terrific, producing the most laughs in the film as he delivers line after line for his character. While The LEGO Movie talked about individuality and The LEGO Batman Movie discussed being part of a family, The LEGO Ninjago Movie talks about a father / son relationship, which is heavily expresses within these two characters. So, even if the movie isn’t up to par with the other films, this movie still delivers a fundamental message and is presented with some great voice actors behind them.
While Franco’s Lloyd and Theroux’s Garmadon get the most (and meatiest) screen time by being the protagonist and antagonist of the feature (aka father and son), the majority of the supporting / secondary characters fare worse and are ultimately undeveloped into stock-like characters. The rest of Lloyd’s Secret Ninja Force, with voice work by Michael Pena (The Martian and Ant-Man) as the hot-headed Kai, Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) as the quiet and cautious Jay, Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live and Portlandia) as the laid-back music loving Cole, Zach Woods (Silicone Valley and The Office) as the robot Zane, and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City and Person to Person) as the strong-willed Nya, is a prime example of this. These five, though voiced by talented individuals, are woefully undeveloped with most reduced to being cookie cutter supporting characters that are, more or less, in the background for most of the movie. Despite them being a part of Lloyd’s team (i.e. with their ninja training and cool mech suits) they really aren’t the focus of the film and usually get pushed to the side as the movie is more invested in telling the relationship between Lloyd and Garmadon. The other two side-characters (Master Wu and Misako) fare a bit better as they are built more into the main narrative of the story. However, each one lacks something that the other has. Master Wu, who is voiced by legendary karate fighter / actor Jackie Chan (Rush Hour and Police Story), is a fun construct for Chan to play around with, but falls prey to just being a “wise teacher” cliché of sorts. Similarly, Misako, who is voiced by Olivia Munn (The Newsroom and Office Christmas Party) has a good backstory to her (being Lloyd’s mother and Garmadon’s old love interest), but Munn’s voice work is pretty bland as it could’ve been played by someone else. Thus, as I said, one has something that the other lacks in their respective characters.
Additionally, movie has several cameo-like appearances / small supporting roles from a couple of recognizable names, including talk show host Robin Roberts and former NFL player Michael Strahan (both of who play themselves in the movie), Chris Hardwick (Sanjay and Craig and Back at the Barnyard) as the Radio DJ, and Randall Park (Trainwreck and Office Christmas Party) and Retta (Parks & Recreation and Middle School: Worst Years of My life) as a pair of high school cheerleaders named Chen and Maggie. These performance, though relatively small, do continue the LEGO Movie trend of some fun cameo appearances of voice actors playing small roles or even playing themselves.
Lastly, there’s a live-action / real world scene that bookends the movie, which stars Jackie Chan as Mr. Liu and Kaan Guldur as the young unnamed boy. The scene, which is kind of something out of a late 80s / early 90s kids flick (aka a story within a story tactic), just seems awkward and out of place. Yes, The LEGO Movie uses a scene like this, but was able to pull it off wonderfully; serving as an emotional point for the feature. Unfortunately, The LEGO Ninjago Movie usage of this live-action scene falls short and would’ve better if it was just cut from the final film.
Lloyd Garmadon, and the rest of Master Wu’s Secret Ninja Force, battles against Lord Garmadon and discover that there more to their archenemy than meets the eye in the movie The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan newest film bring to life the world of LEGO’s Ninjago to the big screen, creating a third entry in this popular (and lucrative) animated movie franchise with the same humor and heart as its predecessors. Unfortunately, while the animation looks great and the voice acting is solid, it’s clear that The LEGO Ninjago Movie, with its weak story, undeveloped characters, and a stagnant recipe formula, is easily the weakest of three LEGO Movie feature film released to date. Personally, I though this movie was reasonable good, but could’ve been a whole lot better. Yes, it was fun and had an animated entertainment value to it, but, compared to the other two entries, it was just mediocre, with the franchise showing signs that its overall freshness has lost its edge. So, my recommendation for this movie would be an iffy-choice as fans of the LEGO Ninjago toys (or the cartoon TV series) will probably enjoy the movie more so than casual moviegoers and / or fans of the previous two LEGO Movies. All and all, if interested, just wait for it to come out on home release in a few months. Given the outcome and appeal of The LEGO Ninjago Movie, with its mixed reviews from both fans and critics, it’s clear that Warner Animation Group needs to go back to “drawing board” to rework their LEGO moviemaking formula if they want to bounce back to the top of the theatrical animation heap. Let’s hope they do so with The LEGO Movie sequel, which is scheduled to be released on February 2019.
3.5 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice)
Released On: September 22nd, 2017
Reviewed On: October 9th, 2017
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is 101 minutes and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor