When I say this is my least favorite of the three Lego animated films, I don’t mean that as an insult; I just mean that the The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie set the bar so high, that anything that falls short of those benchmarks seems less than. In fact, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is still quite spirited, funny, and fully enjoyable.
Part of my issues may have to do with the fact that I’m not familiar with the Ninjago storylines and character from television. Thankfully, I don’t get the sense that that makes much of difference. It boils down to five teenagers who take on secret ninja identities to fight crime in the city of Ninjago, all under the guidance of a powerful teacher named Master Wu, voiced by none other than Jackie Chan. Chan also helped choreograph some of the movie’s fight sequences, and he shows up in live-action bookend sequences as an antique store owner.
Much like The LEGO Movie, Ninjago takes place in the world of the imagination. As Chan tells a story to a young boy who has wandered into his store, we see it come to life in the LEGO world. Dave Franco voices Lloyd, who transforms into the Green Ninja, and is secretly the estranged son of super-villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux). This bad guy attacks Ninjago from his fortress within a volcano every so often, only to be repelled by the ninjas, who also include Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Kai (Michael Peña), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), and Zane (Zach Woods), who is most probably a robot. Each of the other ninjas possess powers connected to natural elements, such as water, ice, and fire, while Lloyd mopes because all he represents is “green.”
Still, they follow Master Wu’s lead and are able to defeat Garmadon every time. But Lloyd harbors a not-so-secret resentment about his absentee father, and he allows his emotions to get the best of him when he secretly steals something called The Ultimate Weapon, which I won’t spoil, but it attracts a familiar-looking monster to the city that levels it in a Godzilla-like rampage.
In order to acquire another weapon to drive away the monster, the ninjas must work together with Garmadon and travel outside the city. They navigate a vast terrain out into the unknown, thesting their cohesiveness as a team and their ever-growing powers. The LEGO Ninjago Movie transforms into a fairly heartfelt story about a father and son connecting for the first time, but is this bond genuine, or is Garmadon just using Lloyd to get what he wants and become the supreme leader of Ninjago?
As an animated work, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is spectacular and so detailed that, like all of the LEGO movies, you’ll likely miss a great deal of what’s going on in the frame the first time around. The city appears to combine elements of both Japanese and Chinese architecture and culture, which visually is exceedingly eye catching, even if it’s not 100 percent culturally sensitive. I especially liked Garmadon’s demon-samurai look and the mech look of the ninja’s vehicles, which they use to repel all enemy forces.
For a film that feels fairly simply in terms of story, The LEGO Ninjago Movie lists three directors (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan), as well as six screenwriters, which I find astonishing. But the teams that make these movies know they have a lot to live up to, and they’ll throw as many people at this film as they think it needs to succeed. The resulting work is very funny, especially the interaction between Franco and Theroux, while some of the best lines are simply throwaway jokes from Nanjiani and Woods (both of whom work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”).
Like the other LEGO movies, there are deeper messages about tapping into one’s potential, being the best version of yourself, and finding friendships among your fellow outcasts. But you plunk down your money for action, and there is plenty of that as well.
I’ll admit, I feel somewhat spoiled that we get two LEGO movies in a calendar year (the same way I feel really grateful we get two movies featuring Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman in a six-month period), and while even a lesser-quality version of this world brings a smile to my face, you can’t do much more than recommend it and keep your fingers crossed that the proper sequel to The LEGO Movie (due in early 2019) is better than all the rest.