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The product of three credited directors, six credited screenwriters, five editors and one executive producer who helmed two of the most uninspired trilogy enders in recent memory (Brett Ratner, of X-Men: The Last Stand and Red Dragon), The Lego Ninjago Movie is, finally, more or less the kind of advertainment observers expected from the first big-screen adventure featuring Lego toys. A perfectly adequate family film for kids who love watching things they’ve seen many times before (which is to say, most kids), it offers plenty of chuckles for their parents but nothing approaching the glee of that first Lego Movie.
In a live-action framing device, the picture opens like a Gremlins knockoff, with a young boy wandering into a mysterious Chinatown curio store. The shopkeeper, Jackie Chan, sees the kid’s beat-up Lego action figure and takes pity on him, transforming “Lloyd” into a ninja with some sleight of hand. He then pulls a carved-wood figurine out from a cabinet (this one a wizened martial-arts master) and starts spinning a yarn about “the story of Ninjago.”
Release date: Sep 22, 2017
Older viewers who still associate Legos with basic-shape bricks that can be used to build anything a child imagines may not know that Ninjago is a vast empire of branded kits, each designed to build a specific element of a world depicted in a TV series of the same name. Ninjago is, in other words, the kind of imagination-inhibiting toy that represented everything dumb and oppressive in 2014’s The Lego Movie. (And from which that year’s self-serving Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary suggested, dishonestly, the company was moving away.)
Ninjago is a strange island-city where elements of Chinese and Japanese pop culture combine to create an environment populated mostly by white people. (Lego humans tend to share a common, unidentifiable skin tone, but of the top-billed actors voicing these characters, only Chan comes from China or Japan.) Here, civilization faces constant threat from Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), a villain who lives in a volcano and wreaks havoc periodically.
The aforementioned Lloyd (Dave Franco, often charming in live action but generic here) is Garmadon’s estranged son and therefore a pariah in Ninjago. The only people who’ll have anything to do with him are the five friends who secretly form a superhero team with him: They’re Power Ranger-like warriors who do battle with Garmadon in giant robo-mech suits. What they have to do with ninjas is anyone’s guess, and — beyond the fact that one is a girl and one is a robot — the script doesn’t bother giving any of them (aside from Lloyd) much of a personality.
The ninjas’ spiritual leader is Master Wu (Chan), whose secret stash of gear includes one Ultimate Weapon. After the latest clash between Garmadon and the ninjas fails to destroy the bad guy (battle scenes here are epic but so busy in their design they become a blur), Lloyd decides to steal this mysterious weapon and use it against dear old Dad.
Like The Lego Movie‘s Kragle, the Ultimate Weapon turns out to be a common household object, a key-chain laser pointer. How this device unleashes its destructive power is surprising and belly laugh-worthy, which of course means it is spoiled by the film’s trailers. Suffice it to say that Lloyd unwittingly causes more harm to Ninjago than his father ever did. Now he and his buddies must go on a dangerous quest to find the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon.
Garmadon decides to help them, for reasons that will likely be lost on viewers but make perfect sense to any hack screenwriters in the audience: Father and son must, of course, be forced to bond during their travails and reconcile in the end.
Readers detecting a vaguely Skywalkerian theme will observe many Star Wars references here, along with plenty of borrowings from other fantasy adventures. Though these lack the clever, self-aware quality of the external references in The Lego Movie, they’re inoffensive and generally effective — up until the picture’s “the power is inside of you” climax, at which point they may prompt some eye-rolling. The inevitable heart-to-heart between the two Garmadons, Lloyd and Lord, is more sappy than satisfying — despite the novelty of its setting, which may have some young kids rolling in the aisles.
Production companies: Lin Pictures, Lord Miller, Vertigo Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Voice cast: Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Pena, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Olivia Munn
Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
Screenwriters: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Producers: Dan Lin, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Chris McKay, Maryann Garger, Roy Lee
Executive producers: Jill Wilfert, Keith Malone, Simon Lucas, Chris Leahy, Seth Grahame-Smith, Zareh Nalbandian, Brett Ratner
Production designers: Kim Taylor, Simon Whiteley
Editors: Julie Rogers, Garret Elkins, Ryan Folsey, John Venzon, David Burrows
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting director: Mary Hidalgo
Rated PG, 101 minutes
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