With three directors and twelve credited writers, The LEGO Ninjago Movie resembles the outcome after a group of kids joins hands to build a Lego set.
The LEGO movie franchise’s first two installments proved that not all cinematic universes are cynical exemplars of Hollywood trendy nonsense. Both LEGO Movie and LEGO Batman Movie hit hard and fast with honest emotion and wacky humor within their shared, uninhibited realm of ageless creativity while promoting the famous toy line. Now coming from the Cartoon Network animated TV series Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, the spin-off LEGO Ninjago Movie hopes to renew the formula of faux-stop-motion animation and outrageous quips set in the world of East Asian mixed cultures and martial arts.
Ninjago even makes use of Jackie Chan's screen presence for adults to settle with the distracting live-action outset, where a curious boy walks into Mr. Liu’s shop. The actor/martial artist also voices Master Wu and consults on the action choreography to convey movements and postures of martial arts into the stiff limps of LEGO mini-figs. This framing device backfires and bores young viewers—the target audience—before Mr. Liu chronicles the story of Ninjago.
In the LEGO universe, Ninjago is a city regularly intruded by evil Lord Garmaddon (Justin Theroux) and his army of aquatic-themed generals and mechs. Our main character, the stigmatized teenager Lloyd (Dave Franco) has his name smeared by being the estranged son of Garmaddon. (Okay, again with father issues—a recurring motif of postmodern pop culture.) School kids bully Lloyd for it; some cheerleaders even write a song that tops the music chart for... two consecutive weeks! Most of the citizens, however, don't know Lloyd is leading another life as the shot-caller of his Ninja Clan, who protects the city, ironically against Garmaddon. The ninjas are cookie-cutter teenagers with elemental powers of fire, water, earth, etc., deploying cool mechs a la Bionicle into battles. Riding a green Asian dragon, Lloyd is left with an element called... Green—questionable at best and useless at worst. Or that's what he ponders.
Meanwhile, after many failures at the hand of his son, Garmaddon retreats to his hideaway inside a volcano where he purges incompetent subordinates by shooting them away like cannonballs. The evil lord comes up with a new plan, but by then, the story only sinks deeper into its undriven messiness.
Like its predecessors, Ninjago has self-awareness. Characters argue about fingers or remove/fix body parts, but in the same bonkers pacing, its directors (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan) refurbish little of the smart storytelling and organic humor. The semi-entertaining first act is bogged down by familiar, heavy-handed setups of threats and the core conflict about youth’s recklessness and incapacity.
That’s because Ninjago insists on its lazy writing, thus suffering from a sluggish, self-serving narrative with uninspired expansion and exposition through TV newscasters. Jokes become repetitive and corny with the same mechanics playing over and over again. This plotting shows that the directors have their eyes on spectacles rather than worldbuilding—relying on fans of the five-season show knowing all the background information.
To reach predictable realizations and achievements, these filmmakers throw their cardboard characters into plot machination. When Lloyd and his friends aren’t lurching into exhausting gags or fillers, the children-oriented script treats important moments with little care and many hasty cliches. For all that, bland central characters weigh down the swift pacing. The uniformly humorous cast, comprising Michael Peña, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, and Fred Armisen, have the least engaging script to work with. Characters exist only to comment on and laugh at Lloyd. Even during battles, his team feels nothing like a team. Each of Lloyd's friends has one minor quirk, and apart from that, Kai, Jay, Nya, Zane, Cole are the same. Together, they must learn to tap into their inner power—cue “I Got The Power”—and channel it to blast elemental powers after Lloyd’s encouragement. Yes, this quest mirrors an inept LEGO remake of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Halfway through, the plot forces Lloyd to reconcile with his father. They fall into a challenging situation and are tied together with the convenient requirement of... throwing stuff. Suffice to say this trope opens for a lot of Darth Vader-Luke parallels. Fans of the franchise can appreciate its clumsy delivery of humor, but the same old positive message doesn't reach viewers the way it should. While Franco doesn't deliver enough credulity and boldness for his coming-of-age character, Theroux only tries to repeat the same sardonic, throaty egotism of Will Arnett from LEGO Batman.
Regarding visual storytelling, Ninjago can be animated as a common 3D movie and nothing will be different. Art direction shows few examples of inventive flourish with the properties (they use actual water). Apart from the "wise master" characters, the script never explores the material's rich background of East Asian culture. Simple and prosaic, the city retains the bright colors on metropolitan grounds and skyscrapers.
With three directors and twelve credited writers, Ninjago resembles the outcome after a group of kids joins hands to build a Lego set. Its formula could have worked again—we are only at the third one—but this apathetic action comedy ignores the benefits of establishing Ninjago world or deepening characterization. It betrays its own promising premise—an off-the-wall spoof of martial arts films and the next step for LEGO franchise to bolster its creative potential. After this, Warner Animation may have to adopt another kind of bottle to capture the same lightning.
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