A film review by Craig J. Koban September 30, 2017


2017, PG, 101 mins.


Dave Franco as Lloyd (voice)  /  Michael Peña as Kai (voice)  /  Jackie Chan as Master Wu (voice)  /  Kumail Nanjiani as Jay (voice)  /  Zach Woods as Zane (voice)  /  Fred Armisen as Cole (voice)  /  Olivia Munn as Koko (voice)  /  Justin Theroux as Garmadon (voice)  /  Abbi Jacobson as Nya (voice)  /  Ali Wong as General Olivia (voice)

Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan  /  Written by Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern and John Whittington


I'll be the very first to admit that I had no faith early on that the LEGO cinematic universe - is that a thing? - would be as thanklessly good as it has turned out to be.  

Going into 2014's THE LEGO MOVIE - which launched the silver screen franchise - I was overcome with feelings that it was going to be a 90-plus minute mass marketed toy commercial masquerading as a feature film, and I was genuinely surprised by how shrewdly written, subversively hysterical, and visually ambitious the enterprise was.  Then came this year's THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, which paid both homage to the iconic DC Comics character while slyly lampooning him at the same time.  That film might not have had the lightning in a bottle freshness of THE LEGO MOVIE, but it was a highly worthy follow-up.

Now comes the third film in the big screen LEGO-verse in THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE, which, to be absolutely fair, is based on an established property that many in the audience might not be overly familiar with.  Taking inspiration from, yes, the classic toy line, THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is actually the first Lego feature film to be based on an original Lego property, which sets itself well apart from its two predecessor films.  On a level of sumptuous and richly textured animation, THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is clearly on par with THE LEGO MOVIE and THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, and it certainly retains the franchise's devilish wit.  However, this latest brick-infused 3D animated movie kind of stumbles on expositional story particulars, not to mention that, when it boils right down it, the film seems to be displaying some ample creative exhaustion that stymies the ebb and flow of the entire enterprise. 



Maybe the real issue with THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is that it contains characters and a universe that's not as identifiable as what appeared in the last two Lego films, and viewers - myself included - will mostly likely find the introductory segments here to be mightily confusing on a level of basic world building.  There's nothing inherently wrong with thrusting viewers into a film world with a stark immediacy and not wasting too much valuable screen time of wasteful explanations, but THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is far too chaotic and impatient early on for establishing its world.  Instead, unsuspecting audience members that don't already have an affinity with the Cartoon Network series that inspired this film will, no doubt, be scratching their collective heads as to what's happening in the story.  The caffeinated nature of the Lego movies as a whole can be riotously infectious, but here it holds us back from truly investing and immersing ourselves in it.  

The overall screenplay itself - the product of far too many writers - seems to be lacking in innovation as it follows formulaic arcs of "believe in yourself and the power of friends" to the point of inspiring boredom and watch checking at times.  At least THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE looks reliably sensational as it introduces us to the colorful and vibrant world of Ninjago, home to Lloyd  (voiced with enthusiasm by Dave Franco), a social outcast at his local high school that also happens to be a secret masked ninja warrior that's been receiving Yoda-like training from his uncle, Master Wu (Jackie Chan, who appears both in animated and human form in the film...more on that it a bit).  Lloyd has been long since estranged from his evil father, Lord Garmadon (an uncaged Justin Theroux), a four armed monster that lives in a volcano and frequently launches invasions of Ninjago just to prove his might. 

Now, Lloyd doesn't take his father's nefarious ways sitting down, so he decides to face off against him with his ninja clan in tow, which includes Kai (Michael Pena), Jay (Kamail Ninjiani), Nye (Abbi Jacobson), Zane (Zach Woods), and Cole (Fred Armisen).  The team all ride POWER RANGERS- esque mechs that are designed to protect their city from tyranny, but their standoff with Garmadon goes horribly afoul and leads to Lloyd confronting his father and dealing with his daddy issues that eventually have personal ramifications for both of them. 

The father/son dynamic between Lloyd and Lord Garmadon provides some of THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE's most solid laughs, which are usually at the expense of the former trying to crack through the deliriously stubborn emotional defenses of his father, whom seems amusingly absent minded when it comes to his biological bond with his son.  Franco brings a credible youthful exuberance, spunk, and vulnerability to Lloyd that's also filled with pathos, especially for how this sweet and noble minded hero must deal with the fact that his papa is a city destroying maniac.  THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is utterly owned, though, by Theroux's frequently side-splitting turn as his stupefyingly clueless villain.  Lord Garmadon is evil, to be sure, but he also lacks a verbal filter and comes off as hilariously pompous and abnormally egotistically, and hearing Theroux thoroughly invest himself in this role with a buffoon-like glee is what helps make THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE eminently watchable.   

The inherent problem with Theroux's wacky and inspired work here is that he single-handedly upstages most of the other voice actors.  With the exception of Franco and Chan,  nearly every character that surrounds them lack personality and, when all is said and done, most of the other ninja warriors sound, look, and feel wholly interchangeable with one another.  One highly odd choice was to replace the voice actors from the TV series with better known movie actors and comedians.  That's not to say that the team assembled here doesn't do decent work, but so very few members of Lloyd's ninja team come off memorably.  This bizarre creative move will nevertheless turn off those most die hard fans of the series that inspired the feature film.   

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE does have some fleeting moments of inspiration, especially with Lloyd and company accidentally unleashing the "ultimate weapon" to defeat Lord Garmadon via a laser pointer in one of the film's best recurring sight gags that I wouldn't dream of revealing here (feline owners will appreciate it).  There's also a great comedic bit involving what happens to a Lego character when - gasp! - one of his limbs becomes suddenly amputated, which leads to one of the film's most funny and self aware moments.  I also appreciated some nicely bookended sequences that featured Chan as Mr. Lui, an owner of a curio shop that tries to cheer up a local bullied child with thrilling tales of the ninja warriors of Ninjago (the live action sequences here segue nicely into the animated world of Lego).  Chan actually pulls a very rare triple duty here, playing not only two separate characters, but also choreographing the film's many well realized martial arts-inspired action sequences.  THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE, like previous Lego movies, wisely understands what kind of genres and films its both spoofing and paying homage to (the fact that the film features a Shaw Brothers tribute in the opening title cards is proof of that). 

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is an awfully hard film to hate.  It has ample charm, a free wheeling sense of capricious energy, a wickedly droll antagonist, and a meticulously realized and oftentimes sumptuously beautiful world to engage with that's as lovingly realized in Lego form as any other film that came before it.  I only wished that three directors and six writers could have pushed the envelope a bit more with this third big screen Lego adventure and not let their film adhere to lazy coming of age narrative conventions.  I found THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE to be light weight and fun, but not particularly novel and refreshingly offbeat.  Thinking back, perhaps no other franchise entry could have matched THE LEGO MOVIE's cheekily self referential spirit and radical tone.  THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE is made of the same literal building blocks that made early Lego films such sublime surprises, but the other elements built around its winning and crowd pleasing visual aesthetic don't seem to click together here with as much symmetry.

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