The second sequel to 2014’s inventive and exhilarating The Lego Movie offers much of the same colorful exuberance of its predecessors, though it’s clear that much of the novelty that made the original such a surprise is beginning to stretch itself thin. If you’re game for some dazzling animation and a chuckle here and there, or if you’re just looking for a movie to take the kids to that you can also get a kick out of, The Lego Ninjago Movie will give you a bang for your buck. Look too closely, though, and you’re likely to notice that not everything snaps so neatly into place.
The latest Lego entry is based off the company’s “Ninjago” line that was first released in 2011. Similar to the “Bionicle” property, “Ninjago” features original characters inspired by eastern mythology and martial arts, albeit in a rather friendlier setting. There was also a TV series developed to promote the product line, which has been running on Cartoon Network since before the release of the original Lego Movie. The Lego Ninjago Movie features a different take on the toys than the TV series, so don’t worry if you haven’t seen the show. It’s more for kids, anyway.
The Lego Ninjago Movie takes place in a fantasy world called “Ninjago,” a sort-of hybrid of American and Asian cultures. If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, Ninjago is one of the many “Lego worlds” that exist to complement the many styles of Lego sets. The city of Ninjago is under frequent attack by the evil Lord Garmadon, who will stop at nothing to become the city’s ruler. The city is defended by the Secret Ninja Force, who each are learning to master a different element (e.g., fire, ice, lightning), and are taught by the wise Master Wu, Garmadon’s brother.
Garmadon’s son, Lloyd, leads the ninja force. No one except the ninja force knows he is a ninja, but the entire town knows he is the son of Garmadon, and for this he is constantly ridiculed and ostracized. During a battle with Garmadon, Lloyd angrily reveals his identity to his father, and unintentionally uses a forbidden weapon to unleash a giant cat, which begins to destroy the city. In the face of the common threat, Lloyd and Garmadon must go on a journey to locate an “ultimate weapon,” and the two must come to grips with their differences along the way.
The idea of a world modeled after Western and Eastern cultures is interesting, but the series’ mythos is little more than an amalgamation of every iconic media franchise. Garmadon and Lloyd unmistakably borrow from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in a concept flagrantly utilizing yet another iteration of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” Viewers are sure to find elements of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, as well as classic kung fu movies throughout. While this at times resembles friendly homage, it mostly indicates unimaginative world-building.
Similar to previous Lego movies, Ninjago features a broad all-star voice cast. Dave Franco shines with velvety charm as Lloyd, Justin Theroux is wickedly funny as Lord Garmadon, and Jackie Chan has playful appearances both in live action and in voice. The Lego Ninjago Movie’s core characters are amiable, but the film’s wide cast of supporters, namely the other members of the ninja squad, are forgettable and hardly necessary. Though they hardly register, celeb voices including Michael Peña, Kumail Nanjiani and Abbi Jacobson put in a good effort.
Those that have been following the franchise to this point are sure to find that the ingenuity is quickly fleeting in this third movie, though the energy has not deflated. While The Lego Movie featured astute meta-humor riffing on Legos in general, and Lego Batman boasted sharp satire on an iconic superhero, Ninjago has less to offer with its familiar and derivative premise. The jokes are many in number, but less are side-splitting. Close analysis of story also shows signs of decay, as the “ultimate weapon” turns out to be a massive red herring, and things wrap up far too easily.
There are still those around who remember when Lego sets didn’t come with step-by-step instructions and exact orders on what to build. They used to be catalysts for invention, but marketers and brand tie-ins have put those days to rest. In similar fashion, it’s clear the motives for the Lego movies are beginning to be serving shareholders and ticket sales more so than supplying playgrounds for imagination and fun. If you loved the first two Lego movies, you’ll like The Lego Ninjago Movie as well, but you’re sure to notice the bricks have lost some shine.