Warner Bros.’ LEGO movies have taken the world by storm on two separate occasions, between blockbuster hits, The LEGO Movie in 2014, and this past February’s The LEGO Batman Movie. Before the year is even out, we’re now getting a third movie to join that duo as well, in the likely inevitable The LEGO Ninjago Movie, bringing one of the biggest original LEGO brands to the big screen.
LEGO Ninjago has been a hit with younger audiences and general LEGO enthusiasts for many years, ever since it first pioneered a wave of LEGO sets and toys in 2011, along with launching an animated series on Cartoon Network in that same year, known as ‘LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu‘. The LEGO Ninjago Movie provides a new take on LEGO Ninjago lore, one that’s independent of the backstories behind the toys and the canon of the cartoon, while incorporating recognizable characters and locations from the LEGO Ninjago brand, bringing them more into the style of The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie.
As popular as LEGO Ninjago is though, it’s pretty evident that it pales in comparison to the nearly-century-long history and fandom behind the Batman property, and that immediately sets it at a pretty big disadvantage against this year’s thoroughly excellent The LEGO Batman Movie. More than that however is the fact that The LEGO Ninjago Movie often feels disappointingly conventional, and like it doesn’t have the same sharp sense of wit that was all throughout The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie.
This certainly doesn’t equate to a bad movie, mind you, but this is also one that adults will find more sporadically amusing, since The LEGO Ninjago Movie more clearly and exclusively markets itself to children and family audiences. The LEGO Ninjago Movie nonetheless looks fantastic though (especially for a September movie!), and is competent and entertaining enough to make it an easy watch if you either enjoy the LEGO movies, or have kids that you want to entertain for a short while. Between the three current LEGO movie releases however, this one is not only easily the least impressive, but also the least essential, so it’s definitely not a priority for your moviegoing dollars, even if it’s also far from a true disappointment.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie stars Dave Franco as Lloyd Garmadon, the outcast teenage son of villainous demon samurai, Lord Garmadon, voiced by Justin Theroux. Lord Garmadon has made it his life’s mission to terrorize Ninjago, the city that this movie’s protagonists all live in, in an effort to conquer it. This means that pretty much everyone in Ninjago both hates and fears Lloyd, despite the fact that he wants nothing to do with his estranged father, and just wants to be treated like a normal kid.
Of course, Lloyd isn’t a normal kid, as he happens to be part of a secret band of ninjas that protect the city, led by Master Wu, voiced by Jackie Chan. These ninjas include fire-manipulating ninja, Kai, voiced by Michael Pena, water-manipulating ninja (kunoichi?), Nya, voiced by Abbi Jacobson, robotic ice-manipulating ninja, Zane, voiced by Zach Woods, and finally, lightning-manipulating ninja, Jay, voiced by Woods’ Silicon Valley c0-star, Kumail Nanjiani. The ninjas are naturally celebrated as being the one and only line of defense against Lord Garmadon, and have managed to drive off every invasion attempt so far, despite both Garmadon and the city being oblivious to Lloyd’s identity as the so-called ‘green ninja’, who doesn’t appear to have any elemental powers or influence.
There are a lot of opportunities to poke fun at the character dynamics here, and some of them are taken, in fairness. Chan and Theroux quite effectively steal the show as Wu and Lord Garmadon, respectively, with Franco also standing out as a likable, if by-the-numbers teen protagonist. As expected from Warner Animation Group’s feature LEGO films, the voice performances throughout The LEGO Ninjago Movie are often excellent in general, though it is disappointing that the rest of the ninja team behind Lloyd have such one-note personalities. They manage a few funny jokes, but none of them are terribly memorable. Even Lloyd has a backstory that’s been done so many times before, with Lord Garmadon’s more fun and interesting villain giving that character most of his appeal.
When The LEGO Ninjago Movie is focused firmly on the Garmadon family tree, that’s often when it’s at its strongest and funniest. The strained relationship between Lloyd Garmadon and Lord Garmadon is the one rich vein of humourous substance that The LEGO Ninjago Movie can often reliably tap, with the rest of the movie’s characters disappointingly just going through the motions. This likely won’t be an issue with kids, who can easily enjoy the fast-paced action and gorgeous LEGO visuals, but considering how rich and full of character both The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie are, it’s disappointing for The LEGO Ninjago Movie to feel so conventional and predictable with its cast by comparison.
Much like the personalities, a lot of The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s storyline treads familiar ground, despite its efforts to avoid recycling the storylines of LEGO Ninjago’s televised cartoon series. We’ve seen plenty of these cinematic stories about unpopular teenagers who are secretly doing very awesome things that they should be popular for, but they’re not, as well as stories about teenagers trying to defy being punished for bad seeds in their family line. Even the big adventure of Ninjago’s ninja force feels like it takes elements from plenty of other kid-friendly action/adventure media, and you’ll see this when you witness what they need to do in order to save the city.
Arguably the most distinct and memorable portion of The LEGO Ninjago Movie comes when the city becomes menaced by this huge live-action cat, which was all over a good chunk of the movie’s marketing, and for good reason. The cat, Meowthra, so named as an obvious parody of Godzilla nemesis, Mothra, serves as one of the key dangers in the movie aside from Lord Garmadon, and the quest to shoo away the cat, and how the cat is ultimately dealt with, is another stronger point in the otherwise disappointingly generic tale behind The LEGO Ninjago Movie.
This storyline really needed more self-aware parody like the Meowthra scenes, because as it stands, The LEGO Ninjago Movie leaves so many satire opportunities on the table. Since the movie markets itself more aggressively towards younger viewers, rather than having a good mix of humour for all ages like The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie did, it feels like both the jokes and story progression in The LEGO Ninjago Movie are noticeably simpler and less clever. That’s fine for kids who just want to enjoy the animation and fun, but it’s too bad that The LEGO Ninjago Movie couldn’t ultimately find the same sense of clever wit behind its two predecessors, even if it still offers enough chuckles and fun moments in its storyline to at least make it passable.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the byproduct of three separate co-directors! The movie seems to primarily be the brainchild of Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, who perform both writing and directing duties for The LEGO Ninjago Movie, alongside Charlie Bean as another director, a very prolific cartoon director and animator on television, between work on Samurai Jack, Batman: The Animated Series, Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, among others. On top of three directors, The LEGO Ninjago Movie also has six credited writers, and that’s not counting the seven folks (some of which include the six recognized script writers), who were also credited alongside these six for putting together the movie’s story treatment. Yikes!
With that car crash of a writing credits list, and three separate directors all contributing to how The LEGO Ninjago Movie is ultimately presented, it becomes painfully clear that this movie only exists because Warner Bros. saw it as a commercial opportunity for the LEGO Ninjago brand. It’s actually kind of amazing that this movie isn’t a complete mess in all respects, though this effort to avoid a narrative catastrophe might also explain why the movie plays it so safe with its storytelling. It’s a real testament to the work of Fisher, Logan and Bean as directors that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not only coherent, but also fairly entertaining, even it falls well beneath the glowing standard of The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie.
It also bears repeating that Fisher’s, Logan’s and Bean’s work on the direction behind the character animations, visuals and action is pretty outstanding throughout. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is constantly stimulating and enjoyable to look at, even for adults, let alone children. Even when the movie starts becoming more bland and boilerplate, it’s at least consistently easy on the eyes, and always gives you something colourful and fun to watch. There’s lots of effort put into the production and design of The LEGO Ninjago Movie for sure, and that’s another thing that certainly makes it passable, even as it so blatantly lacks wit and depth in many spots.
Mark Mothersbaugh returns to compose the score to The LEGO Ninjago Movie, after previously doing the soundtrack for The LEGO Movie a few years ago. There’s unfortunately no, “Everything is Awesome”-level masterpiece in The LEGO Ninjago Movie, but Mothersbaugh nonetheless puts together a pleasant and fitting score that mixes child-like fun and high adventure, with a few well-placed licensed tunes to keep the spirit of the two previous LEGO movies fully intact. There isn’t too much to say about the soundtrack, which obviously isn’t delivering A-material in what’s clearly not the best of the LEGO movies, but it’s lively, energetic, and it works with what it has to do.
The rest of the audio work is presented pretty much exactly as we would expect it in the LEGO movies by now. There’s a playful clacking of plastic combined with comically over-the-top ‘effects’ sounds that probably wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a child’s imagination, as they’re playing with real-life LEGO toys. Once again, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is pretty much aiming for par here, but the audio and sound mixing are satisfactory, and you will get a decent thrill out of the goofy action scenes. If nothing else, the scale of the action in The LEGO Ninjago Movie is plenty impressive, even if it’s obviously still being careful not to be in any way intense, so as not to frighten younger children.
Despite this movie clearly falling beneath the likes of The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, it at least definitely looks the part. The LEGO Ninjago Movie does the visual reputation of Warner Animation Group’s LEGO movies proud, being consistently glossy, authentic and constantly delightful to watch. Kids especially will love the incredibly energetic, fast-paced animation, which even rivals The LEGO Batman Movie in terms of how comically zany it is! If nothing else, there are plenty of visually appealing set pieces throughout The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which definitely works as another superb showcase of the huge cinematic power behind LEGO-style animation.
Naturally, the 3D presentation on offer for The LEGO Ninjago Movie also provides plenty of benefits, making the animation feel even more fun and immersive. The 3D job isn’t quite as amazing as it was in The LEGO Movie or The LEGO Batman Movie, but it’s still a really good one, and 3D is definitely the format that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is ideally meant to be viewed in. You’re still getting a colourful and visually arresting movie if you just watch The LEGO Ninjago Movie flat in 2D, but if you have the means, this is another LEGO movie that is ideally experienced on the big screen in 3D, where its visuals are at their most over-the-top enjoyable.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is another obvious feature-length commercial for real-life LEGO products from the Warner Bros. corporate catalogue, though The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie actively benefited from that stance with their especially clever humour and story material. The LEGO Ninjago Movie meanwhile feels like it mostly only exists to plug the LEGO Ninjago toys to children, even if it still somehow manages to avoid the feeling of being irredeemably cynical. Instead, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the most disappointingly conventional and forgettable LEGO movie made to date, even if it’s still a competent one, and at least a very stylish one, especially in terms of a movie made for the dreary September movie calendar.
If you enjoyed the previous LEGO movies and don’t mind lowering your expectations, then The LEGO Ninjago Movie is still a pretty good time, even if kids will definitely get more out of it than adults this time. A huge chunk of this movie is salvaged by its great direction, outstanding animation and superb lead cast, even if many of them are stuck playing interchangeable, ill-developed ninja allies to Lloyd and Master Wu, the real heart behind this simplistic tale. Frankly, considering the ludicrous amount of metaphorical cooks in the kitchen behind this movie’s creation, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is probably the best final product that we could have reasonably asked for, even if it can’t ultimately hold a candle to the two animated masterworks that preceded it.
- Superb voice work throughout, especially from Franco, Theroux and Chan
- Some very clever directing moments, especially with Meowthra
- LEGO-style animation remains outstanding in every respect
- Disappointingly generic, forgettable storyline
- Most of the ninja leads are barely developed
- Humour is more simplistic than the previous LEGO movies