'Checkered Ninja' ('Ternet Ninja'): Film Review | Annecy 2019

Courtesy of Annecy International Animation Film Festival
Clever and a bit crude.

Comedian Anders Matthesen’s second animated feature has been a box office sensation in Denmark, where it has attracted nearly 1 million viewers since December.

Not your average ninja, nor your average kids movie about ninjas, the Danish animated feature Checkered Ninja (Ternet Ninja) lies somewhere between a clever coming-of-age cartoon and a racy comedy more suitable for a slot on Adult Swim.

The brainchild of comedian, writer and co-director Anders Matthesen (The Trouble With Terkel), who adapted from his best-selling book, this well-conceived sophomore effort has been a whopping success in Denmark, where it has scored the most admissions for a homegrown movie since the mid-1980s. Overseas sales have been brisk, although the film isn't entirely appropriate for the PG-and-under set.

Any cartoon whose first scene consists of a Danish businessman beating a child to death in a sweatshop in Thailand is not necessarily for all ages. Nor are jokes about buying cocaine, references to "skirt chasing" or a gag where the main character’s stepfather is caught reading a porno magazine called Grandma’s Juicy Jugs whose pages are all stuck together.

But that doesn’t mean Checkered Ninja isn’t slickly entertaining or even funny in spots, with Matthesen and co-director/supervising animator Thorbjorn Christoffersen crafting a polished narrative that’s both familiar and a bit off-the-wall.

The opening, where we see the brutal killing of a little boy, is also the moment when the titular character — a ninja doll who wickedly comes to life, Chucky-style — is created. He soon winds up all the way in Denmark, where he falls into the hands of Aske, a bona fide high school nerd and official punching bag of the class bully.

Luckily, the Checkered Ninja, who talks trash like Ted but has the combat skills of Jean-Claude Van Damme, is there to teach Aske to stand up for himself, all the while trying to track down and kill the man who murdered the boy back in Thailand.

It’s a crazy pitch, yet the directors pack their movie with enough jokes and enjoyable set-pieces — including a well-staged showdown with the bully at the local playground — that viewers can ride with the premise long enough. They also toss in a bunch of original rap and trap tracks, some of them not entirely kid-friendly, either, but they make for a fun addition. 

Animation is impressively handled on what was purportedly a small budget, with lots of visual humor and a craftily designed lead character that’s half cuddly and half deadly. Music by Christian Vinten, along with the rap songs written by Mattesen, provide a lively soundtrack to accompany the action.

Humor definitely dips into R-rated territory in places, including that porn reference and some random cursing, but Checkered Ninja is ultimately a playful affair with darker undertones — such as its scathing condemnation of child labor practices in Southeast Asia. In the end, it offers up what feels like a typical tale of a geek finding the courage to stand up for himself, but it does so in a brazenly atypical way that may partially explain its immense success at home.

Production company: A. Film Production
Directors: Anders Matthesen, Thorbjorn Christoffersen
Screenwriter: Anders Matthesen, based on his book
Producers: Trine Heidegaard, Anders Mastrup
Executive producer: Cemille Matthesen
Production designer: Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen
Editor: Kristian Haskjold
Composer: Christian Vinten
Songs: Anders Matthesen
Venue: Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: LevelK

79 minutes