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[Warning: This contains spoilers from The Lego Ninjago Movie.]
After a two-year break, the Warner Animation Group doubled down on Lego movies in 2017. The 2014 release The Lego Movie was a breath of fresh air, a goofy and charming story about the dangers of conformity as performed by the minifigures that kids and adults alike have played with for years. Earlier this year, Warner Bros. released a spinoff film, The Lego Batman Movie, anchored by Will Arnett’s outrageously gravel-voiced take on the Caped Crusader who first appeared in the 2014 film. This weekend, the studio is taking a step forward with a Lego movie not rooted in the same general universe as its predecessors, The Lego Ninjago Movie. Creatively, at least, this choice mildly pays off while portending a possibly dimmer future for these films.
Though The Lego Ninjago Movie has its roots in a toy line of the same name as well as an animated series on Nickelodeon, the pic ends up occupying a similar tonal space as its feature-length forebears. It’s the story of Lloyd Garmadon (voiced by Dave Franco), the son of the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who’s constantly trying to attack and overthrow Ninjago, the metropolis where Lloyd and his mother live. Garmadon is initially unaware that Lloyd — whose existence barely registers to him — is the heroic Green Ninja, who leads a team of ninjas to thwart him every time he rampages through town. Lloyd struggles with resenting his father, being bullied by nasty classmates and keeping his heroic alter ego a secret. Eventually, he and his cohorts are forced to team up with Lord Garmadon himself to save Ninjago from total annihilation.
But this is a Lego movie, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the directors of the 2014 movie) are among this film’s producers. So the forces of evil are a larger-than-life (and live-action) cat named “Meowthra” as well as a slew of nasty Lego minifigs, rebelling against their previous leader, Lord Garmadon. And while the ninjas are guided by their master Wu (Jackie Chan), Wu vanishes at one point so that, as he dryly says, his death “will teach [them] a lesson.” Although these Ninjago characters didn’t appear in the other Lego movies, and vice versa, The Lego Ninjago Movie feels very much of a tonal piece with them. There are pop-culture references aplenty, a tyrannical bad guy, a warped hero-villain relationship and a couple of scenes in live action featuring one of the pic’s stars.
In many respects, this decision taken by the film’s nine writers makes sense. While Lego Ninjago isn’t totally unfamiliar to a wide audience, those who might be expecting something akin to the adventures of the Lego version of Batman or Emmet the Special might feel more comfortable with deliberately self-aware and wacky characters and settings as are found in the new movie. The downside to this approach becomes evident once Lord Garmadon and Lloyd find themselves to be unlikely allies on the journey to saving Ninjago; much of this movie is rooted in an overly familiar father-son story, even if its genesis is an inherently silly take on martial arts and ninja-style battles.
The gags arrive at a rapid-fire pace, but Lord Garmadon feels a bit too much like Will Ferrell’s Lord Business, and the general father-son issues are so recognizable that the movie acknowledges it directly and frequently. (Such issues are present in other recent animated fare like Ratatouille and even Lord and Miller’s other animated feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.) Noting how familiar the story is doesn’t remove that familiarity. What made The Lego Movie so delightful was how it transcended its corporate roots and felt surprising. What made that film surprising makes this one feel too familiar. Therein lies the downside of pulling off a seemingly impossible trick: Once you perform the same trick enough times, the surprise of its success wears off.
The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t tell the exact same story, and it boasts enough solid jokes. There are a number of clever bits referencing all sorts of martial-arts films, as early as the studio logos referencing the films of the Shaw Brothers. Though Lord Garmadon isn’t a singular creation, Theroux infuses him with plenty of lively, snarky personality.
The rest of the cast isn’t given nearly enough to do, but actors like Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods are funny enough to make their slim screen time count. And the generally wild spirit of the previous Lego movies is on display, making The Lego Ninjago Movie a moderately successful picture. If anything, its recognizable tone may serve as an easy entrée for audiences who know less about Ninjago than about Batman or other Lego characters from the original film. But The Lego Movie excelled at being different, and more off-kilter, than other animated films. The Lego Ninjago Movie feels not just like its predecessors, but other studios’ family fare. The last thing any of these movies should feel is watered down.
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