With ‘Ninjago Movie,’ Lego Continues to Build its Sturdy Reputation

There’s a lot going against “The Lego Ninjago Movie.” Not only does it follow two critically acclaimed movies in the Lego franchise, “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie,” but its subject matter is largely unknown by those over the age of five. However, that lack of recognition proved to be moot, and the film, while the weakest of the three, is another heartwarming installment to the Lego cinematic franchise.

The “Ninjago Movie” takes place in Ninjago, a city plagued by attacks from the malevolent Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), a villain intent on destroying the city. The film focuses on the life of Garmadon’s abandoned son, Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco). Lloyd leads a double life. Ordinarily, he is a normal high school student, but when evil looms, he becomes part of a secret teenage ninja squad led by Sensei Wu (voiced by Jackie Chan) that battles Garmadon. The team consists of other ninjas who lead double lives as high school students, Nya (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), Zane (voiced by Zach Woods), Cole (voiced by Fred Armisen), Kai (voiced by Michael Pena) and Jay (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). The crew of high school kids defeats Garmadon repeatedly, but when Lloyd accidentally unleashes a new, destructive threat on the city, the teens are forced to team up with Garmadon to eliminate the threat and save Ninjago.

The film flies at a mile a minute, which proves detrimental to its first act. Viewers barely get to know the city of Ninjago before Lord Garmadon attacks, and the attack sequences are so fast-paced that it’s hard to follow what’s going on. Meanwhile, jokes whiz by the audience at an almost incomprehensible rate. “Ninjago Movie” has more successes once it focuses on the ninjas’ adventure to retrieve the “ultimate weapon.” The film not only slows down, but also becomes more dialogue-driven and character-driven, allowing more jokes to land.

The film is at its best when it focuses on Lloyd’s daily life. Rarely do filmmakers put so much emphasis on the life of a supervillain’s child. The audience can sympathize with Lloyd, who is bullied and scrutinized by his peers merely because his father is an evil man. Franco does a great job expressing the angst and conflict that Lloyd faces. Should he reveal himself as the “Green Ninja” to his father or continue to fight against him? Should he take down his father to save the city? That unique dynamic makes Lloyd a compelling protagonist.

One would be remiss to not mention Theroux’s performance as the maniacal Lord Garmadon. Theroux owns the character and delivers a truly screen-stealing portrayal. Garmadon not only provides most of the film’s best laughs, but his relationship with Lloyd is one of the film’s strongest elements. An excellent villain is crucial to any film, and Theroux’s hysterical portrayal of Garmadon helps “The Lego Ninjago Movie” succeed.

While Franco and Theroux steal the show, the other characters unfortunately aren’t given as much to do. Chan makes the most of his wisecracking Sensei Wu, but his ninja students are largely forgotten. With such a well-known cast, you’d assume that each would stand out, but Woods is the only one that makes an impact with his robotic teenager Zane. Each character has significant screen time, but the other ninjas barely have any dialogue or depth. With stars like Armisen, Nanjiani and Olivia Munn voicing those characters, this is especially disappointing, as their voices are not used to their full potential.

In addition, the story simply doesn’t stand out as much as the other Lego movies did. The plot is predictable, succumbing to numerous genre tropes, and the self-referential winks don’t feel quite as fresh the third time around. While the story is unique to its predecessors, one can’t help but feel that there wasn’t as much time and effort put into the “Ninjago Movie.”

Nonetheless, “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is great fun at the movies. While it may be aimed at youngsters, teenagers and parents can enjoy it just as much, if not more, as some pop-culture references will fly right over kids’ heads. The film works more as a comedy than as an action film, and it will have you chuckling throughout. With two more Lego movies confirmed (“The Lego Movie 2” and “The Billion Brick Race”), and surely more to come, Lego should try to take more risks, but continue to have fun.

 

Grade: B

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