Movie Review: ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’
by Brett Yates
The first Lego Movie in 2014 was so outstanding—not in the particular story it told, but in the joyously unserious creative energy that its makers brought to their nakedly corporate source material—that the success of its first sequel, The Lego Batman Movie (released earlier this year), appeared certain simply by a continuation of the irresistible mindset that had birthed its predecessor, which turned its dumbly capitalistic, boardroom-derived premise and artistic triviality into a kind of asset and freedom. That The Lego Movie was so clearly doomed to badness was, paradoxically, what allowed it to be so good: its mixture of energetically silly, colorful childishness, throwaway grownup humor, and winking pop-culture parodies superficially resembled that of a standard DreamWorks product, but it was less cynically calibrated—there was no calculatedly commercial alternation between kids’ jokes and adults’ jokes; instead, an all-encompassing lightheartedness and an unceasing, unrestrained cleverness drove the enterprise.
If The Lego Movie was sure to be awful (but instead was wonderful), and The Lego Batman Movie was sure to be good (and was), the expectations for The Lego Ninjago Movie perhaps fall somewhere in between: it’s the first real test of the Lego cinematic formula’s durability. Can a franchise survive a multitude of installments simply by virtue of its aggressively cheerful embrace of the ridiculousness of its own existence?
Yes, everything is awesome, but can it always be so, and can an audience subsist on awesomeness alone?
The Lego Ninjago Movie is based on a specific property that is, I guess, popular within the Lego toy universe; it comprises a line of Lego sets whose theme is a sort of futuristic take on the feudal Japan settings of prior ninja-oriented Lego creations. Since 2011, a Ninjago TV series has run on Cartoon Network, and other related merchandise abounds, but it still seems like a strange choice after Lego centered its last movie on a universally recognized superhero, since only little kids know what Ninjago is or even how to pronounce it.
In The Lego Ninjago Movie, a team of teenage ninjas (voiced by Dave Franco, Michael Peña, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, and Fred Armisen) fights to protect the Japanese city of Ninjago from the repeated assaults of the four-armed, black-armored supervillain Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). The kids’ benevolent efforts tend to be middlingly successful; the Ninjago populace is typically saved, but the infrastructure, again and again, is leveled, and Lord Garmadon inevitably gets away unscathed, sure to return for another attempt at conquest. To make matters worse, the Green Ninja (actual name: Lloyd) is secretly Lord Garmadon’s son, and he battles as much to vanquish his own feelings of abandonment as he does to vanquish the villain himself.
The Lego Ninjago Movie begins with a live-action prologue in an old curiosity shop more or less resembling the one that was owned by Christopher Walken, with a smirk of mild embarrassment, in last year’s Nine Lives; this time, Jackie Chan, bearing a similar expression, has taken over as proprietor, and a young boy wanders in, carrying a weathered Lego ninja figurine. Chan promises to tell him the real story behind the toy—the legend of Ninjago—and this moment suggests a spoof of similar opening scenes to toy-based movie tie-ins, in which the toy itself is introduced in order to be subsequently imbued with a mythology (i.e., the plot of the rest of the movie), so as to deepen the mystique of the product and convince small children that it’s not “just a toy”—the necessary associated world of make-believe is supplied for them by the filmmaker. But although this vaguely feels like a trope of the shabbily profitable subgenre of kids’ movies based on action figures and board game properties, it’s not clear which one, specifically, Lego Ninjago is satirizing in this overlong prologue, or even, come to think of it, whether such a scene actually exists elsewhere—maybe in the Ouija movie? It feels plausible, too, that this part is meant only to mock the framing devices of The Princess Bride and similar cinematic fairy tales, though this idea is less satisfying.
In some sense the abovementioned ambiguity reflects the main problem of The Lego Ninjago Movie (which does pick up the pace once the animation—as amusingly detailed as ever—kicks in): in contrast to the well-established mythos of Batman, the universe of Ninjago seems ill-defined, and it’s mostly not clear what cultural source the film is riffing on. The Shaw Brothers, the Power Rangers, Godzilla, and Star Wars (Lloyd’s relationship with Garmadon is a lighter take on the Luke-Vader dynamic) all present themselves as points of reference, but the film’s writers, of which there are five, never seem certain as to the particular ways in which they want to play around with these touchstones, though the movie’s atmosphere remains parodic. The film arrives within a growing trend of fanciful Japanophilia in American animation, with the premiere of Ezra Koenig’s Netflix anime Neo Yokio and the first trailer for Wes Anderson’s latest foray into stop-motion, Isle of Dogs (taking place amid a canine-borne epidemic in Nagasaki), both showing up in the past week or two: for its part, Lego Ninjago takes place partly in the half-American sci-fi future of Big Hero Six, partly within the mystical Orientalism of Kubo and the Two Strings. But it’s at least equally a Chinese kung-fu epic, with Jackie Chan (now doing a voiceover) as the old master from whom the youngsters must learn the way.
The tone of Lego Ninjago is the same as that of prior Lego outings: nothing is taken seriously. The city of Ninjago, for instance, is a Hiroshima in which the tragedy is repeated at regular intervals, but no one is ever hurt or killed, and in the audience, kids and adults alike are relied upon to recognize that Garmadon is merely a reference to the demonic warlords and evil masterminds of comic books rather than a true embodiment of the type, and therefore is not truly evil. It’s within the space created by this irony that the main thread of story—the unlikely reconciliation of Lloyd and his father, in which problems of the home and problems of massive urban destruction are comically equalized—plays out. It’s enjoyable and at least mildly funny throughout. It’s not the perfect entertainment The Lego Movie was, but neither does it prove that Lego’s basic approach—that of pure fun—is necessarily unsustainable.
Brett Yates is a writer in San Francisco, CA.