The LEGO NINJAGO Movie marks the third big screen release from the Dan Lin produced brick based franchise, that launched in 2014 with the runaway success that was The LEGO Movie. The dream team of the LEGO Group and Animal Logic has reassembled here, with creatives from the previous films – including Chris McKay, Phil Lord and Chris Miller – serving as producers.
Unfortunately, third time is not a charm and The LEGO NINJAGO Movie takes the LEGO cinematic world into formulaic yet muddled, predominantly child focused territory. Stunning visuals and flawless voice work cannot mask the movie’s problems, that are apparent once the opening sequence is complete and the plot begins to meander in different directions.
The LEGO NINJAGO Movie takes place in NINJAGO City, where Lloyd Garmadon and his friends are regular high schoolers, with secret identities as the secret ninja fighting force. Lloyd, Kai, Nya, Cole, Zane and Jay are sworn to protect the city from the worst guy in the world – Lord Garmadon, also Lloyd’s father. Things take a turn when Garmadon and his forces attack the city successfully, and as a result the dreaded Meowthra is unleashed. The characters must find a way to stop this unstoppable threat – and of course mend a broken relationship along the way.
This movie looks absolutely stunning, with the animators clearly operating at the top of their game. The best aspects of the previous movies, such as everything being brick built, are combined with a unique aesthetic that sets this apart from what has come before. The fusion of nature and LEGO elements works surprisingly well and is easy to get accustomed to, as is the use of elements such as fire and water.
In the opening sequence, the audience is sucked into Garmadon invading NINJAGO City – rather than feeling like an animated movie, this feels like a real invasion from a live action tentpole. Other moments, such as the citizens of the city waking up, are perfectly choreographed using nice techniques that capture the idyllic life of a brick built world. Even with the regular villainous invasions, NINJAGO City looks like a delightful place to live.
An unfortunate drawback to the film is that during many of the sequences, the camera quickly whizzes past the environments, as is the case in the frenetic opening. The mechs are flying through NINJAGO City at such a pace that viewers who have not delved into the behind-the-scenes material would get very little sense of place or setting. Although the fast pace was one of the things that worked so well in The LEGO Movie, here it is an odd fusion between fast paced action and otherwise evenly paced scenes.
The action is thoroughly enjoyable, with the fast pace that limited the ability to enjoy the scenery making for exhilarating battles. Each of the ninja mechs has been given a unique way of moving that shows thought was put into the choreography. As for the hand-to-hand combat, the face-off between Master Wu and Lord Garmadon is a great sequence that works as a genuine movie fight scene and as an opportunity for some excellent comic timing.
When it comes to the laughs, the best lines tend to belong to Lord Garmadon and his minions. Those interactions are a great source of comedy, playing on both super villain and workplace clichés. The dialogue and carefully crafted visual gags tend to land a lot better than the cat based humour and repeated inclusion of pop songs.
The LEGO NINJAGO Movie suffers from the same problem as The LEGO Batman Movie, in that the premise is more promising than the resulting film. The notion of Lloyd, as the Green Ninja, having to do battle with his villainous father seemed full of comic potential – but the film breezes through the setup of that conflict and quickly gets started on the resolution. This time around, the jokes do not come as thick and fast as they did in The LEGO Batman Movie to help mask the limited plot. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great lines throughout the movie, but the constant stream of belly laughs that has become expected is missing here.
The muddled plot is not helped by some confusing choices by the characters, whose actions at several points lack any sense and are not set up in a justifiable way. Unfortunately this is extended to the basic messages of the movie, such as Master Wu telling the ninja to patiently train after admonishing them for relying on mechs, but is then ignored as the group learn martial arts in a way that does not involve prolonged meditation. As for father/son issues, those are now as worn out in this franchise as they are in cinema in general.
Lloyd is disappointingly one of the film’s weak points, a particular shame as Dave Franco is clearly putting his all into the performance. For the majority of the running time, the character is miserable and dour – for an animated comedy, a lead who can at least see the humour in a frustrating situation helps. At the point in the film that Lloyd acknowledges he never smiles, the audience has already reached that conclusion. Jackie Chan’s Master Wu provides much of the levity on the heroic side of things, essentially playing a LEGO version of his public persona.
It is a shame that such a beloved and inherently amusing property as LEGO NINJAGO was not able to transition to the big screen in a more successful way, despite having an army of writers and three directors behind it. Several snippets from the trailer were changed or removed from the finished film, suggesting a fair amount of development during the production process. Thankfully the LEGO sets based on the film are an absolute delight, even if they do not feature in the story as much as fans may have expected.
There are many, many animated movies that are less enjoyable than The LEGO NINJAGO Movie, which is definitely worth watching. It will land particularly well with children, happy to go along for the adventure and less aware of what this entry is missing. It feels lacking because The LEGO Movie set up something so special and unique that expectations for these films are significantly higher than they are for standard animated fare. Hopefully the return of Lord and Miller to The LEGO Movie Sequel will help the series course correct and recapture the particular magic that made the 2014 original such an unequivocal delight.