Cinema Dispatch: The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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The LEGO Ninjago Movie and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan

What, another one of these already?  Didn’t we JUST see the one with Batman a few months ago!?  Clearly Warner Bros has hit on something big with the success of both The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, and I can only assume it’s what will keep them afloat while this DCCU thing burns itself out.  Still, they seem to be moving at quite a quick pace with these and to top it off, this is based off of their Ninjago line of toys which is something that a lot of movie going audiences might not be familiar with.  Can The LEGO Formula succeed for a third time in surpassing audiences expectations, or will this be the LEGO straw to break the LEGO camel’s back and shatter it into a million pieces that’ll be really annoying to clean up?  Let’s find out!!

The movie is set in the world of Ninjago; a land full of anime nerds who have surrounded themselves in Asian culture; to the point that they have a bad guy named Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) with robots who is in constant need of walloping by a bunch of ninjas with robots.  Seems simple enough, right?  Well you’re WRONG, because this is a LEGO movie and if there’s ONE thing LEGO movies are known for, it’s daddy issues.  It turns out the Green Ninja’s secret Identity is Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco); the son of the bad guy who’s always wrecking things and is therefore rather unpopular at school despite his alter ego being one of the beloved protectors of the town.  With his fellow ninja friends Kai, Jay, Nya, Zane, and Cole (Michael Peña, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, and Fred Armisen), they’ve managed to maintain peace in this town despite there being much unrest within Lloyd himself who REALLY doesn’t like his dad, and rightfully so!  Still, things can’t go on like this forever and he eventually screws up badly enough that not only has Lord Garmadon taken over the city, but he ALSO unleashed a horrifying monster as well which is wreaking havoc all over the place!  His only option now is to go on a Ninja Quest with his Ninja Master Wu (Jackie Chan) and his Ninja Buddies to find the ULTIMATE ULTIMATE weapon that will stop the monster and free the town.  Can Lloyd manage to redeem himself for his failure to protect the town while ALSO finding a way to get past his daddy issues?  Will Lord Garmadon realize the error of his ways and reconnect with his neglected son?  How can they be stealthy when they don’t even have proper articulation!?

 

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Oh, well there you go!  Just put them in giant robots!

Hey everyone?  I think it’s happened.  We’re three movies into this LEGO mega franchise, and it’s already starting to strain under the weight of its existence as LEGO Ninjago, while not a TERRIBLE film, is not up to the standards that were set by the previous two in the series.  Everything that The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie did that felt so effortless and imaginative feels incredibly forced and strained here as it goes through all the motions of trying to be yet another surprisingly deep and heartfelt kids movie yet only manages to pull it off with a fraction of the success that the other films had.  It doesn’t have the originality or breadth of scope that the original film had, and as an adaptation of another franchise… well Batman can get away with plopping us right into the middle of a preexisting world because it has almost eighty years of comics, about ten movies and a SCORE of animated series, while NINJAGO… can’t.  Maybe if you’re a fan of the cartoon from which this SEEMS to be based, you’d enjoy it a lot more, but if you’re someone whose only interest in seeing this is due to the other theatrically released films, well I can’t see this coming off as anything more than a big letdown.

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“We’re TOTALLY nailing this, right!?”

The biggest problem here is a lack of balance between its disparate parts.  The movie latches onto Lloyd’s daddy issues like a leech which is a detriment to everything else around it; especially when this world and its status quo that we’re diving into has evidently been established for quite some time but we’re not given nearly enough information to fill us in on the pertinent details.  The fellow ninjas that Lloyd works with are probably the most glaring consequence of this movie putting too much emphasis on him as there’s no explanation for any of them or why they’re even working together.  I may not have liked that Power Rangers movie at all (and there are certain points in this movie that make it a BETTER Power Rangers film than that one), but at least it took the time to touch base with all of the team members and give us an understanding of who they are.  One of the ninjas in here is a freaking robot, and yet we NEVER get an answer as to why THAT’S a thing here!  It also undercuts any sort of emotional resonance the movie goes for whenever it tries to ALSO be about THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP, and for the most part they honestly come off as total jerks.  Like, MAYBE if there was some history between the ninjas or some unresolved issues bubbling under the surface, it would make sense for them to all but abandon Lloyd when he makes a mistake, but here it just feels like they’re all a bunch of privileged snobs who lucked into being ninjas by virtue of them having access to mechs; the most NINJA of weapons obviously.  Hell, I’m not even sure if they’re supposed to be Master Builders which would AT LEAST indicate that they have ACTUAL skills and weren’t just a bunch of high school dummies who took one too many Karate classes at the strip mall!  The only secondary character who comes off reasonably well is Jackie Chan as the Ninja Master because… well he’s Jackie Chan and he’s playing a Ninja Master!  Not only does that mean he’s written to NOT be a total jerk and has actual wisdom, but it’s also Jackie Chan who’s always fun to watch on screen, even when he’s made of plastic!

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Hm… LEGO Rush Hour…

Okay, so the film is laser focused on its heavy handed message about fatherhood ends up being a detriment to everything else in the movie.  Does it at least get THAT right?  Well… I guess?  Dave Franco and Justin Theroux have pretty decent chemistry throughout this, and while the former can come off as whiny and the latter is trying WAY too hard to sound irreverent, when they’re together there’s a certain amount of charm to the performances.  To focus THIS hard on neglectful (and downright abusive) parenting in a kids movie is a pretty bold move and I can appreciate it on that level, but it just feels… incongruous with the in universe situation.  I mean, I GET that we’re dealing with toys and we shouldn’t be taking the scenarios TOO seriously, but there’s a lot more at play here than YOU WERE NEVER THERE FOR ME DAD, and the movie does a rather awkward job of mixing the two together.  Make no mistake; Lord Garmadon is a MONSTROUS person who routinely tries to invade the city of Ninjago while causing as much property damage as possible and PROBABLY killing quite a few people in the process!  Okay, death doesn’t REALLY exist in Lego Land (even when Vitruvius died, he got to come back as a ghost) but even if we ignore the fact that the movie is TRYING to tell a story about absentee fathers by way of a genocidal dictator, he’s still a REALLY nasty piece of work and the movie’s message feels muddled simply for the amount of chaos that Lloyd is being asked to forgive in order to win his father back.  Everything that goes bad for Lloyd in this movie can be directly attributed to his father’s carelessness and cruelty, yet the movie barely even acknowledges this and never asks Lord Garmadon to TRULY repent for his actions; and yet the movie feels the need to throw THREE heartfelt speeches at us in the climax to push this point home.  All I could think of while watching that happen was that it’s message is not as well thought out as the one in the first film despite the fact they only had ONE heartfelt speech to get it message across!  This is why everything feels so FORCED here compared to the other films and it might have had a chance at succeeding if it didn’t feel the need to live up to (or even surpass) what was done in the last two films.  Not every movie about LEGOs has to be a treatise on the human condition!

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“Why is this happening to me!?  I’ve made my mistakes!!”

The stuff that works about this movie is what worked about the previous films.  The Lord/Miller style of irreverent and self-aware humor is still on full display here, and the animation continues to look incredible across the board; whether it’s big city destruction or LEGO Mano-a-mano action scenes.  Also, any movie that puts a spotlight on Henchmen and Henchwomen will ALWAYS get a bonus point from me, and they sure do get some great moments in this!  Sadly though, none of it is AS good as in the previous two films.  The humor doesn’t quite work as well with too many of the jokes falling flat and the movie trying too hard to be WACKY and RANDOM which causes some serious tonal inconsistencies considering how hard it’s trying throughout to be full of MEANING and DRAMA.  Also, the animation, while as impressively crafted as ever, didn’t have the same kind of impact it did in prior films.  Despite the clear technical wizardry with which some of these set pieces are constructed, my eyes just ended up glazing over during many of the bigger spectacles; possibly because it was hard to care what was going to happen and they eventually started to feel rather repetitive.  The best action scene turns out to be the one with LEGO Jackie Chan in a one on one fight scene; not only because it had the least amount of LEGO clutter being thrown about, but because it actually had meaning as the two characters involved (him and Lord Garmadon) had a clearly defined history which set up GENUINE stakes during the fight!  Imagine that!  Writing CHARACTERS and having them INTERACT is better than spewing daddy issue clichés on the screen and blowing everything up over and over again!!

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“You look stupid in that hat!”     “I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I!?”     “Wait, what?”     *BASH*

This movie has three directors, six writers, and three additional Story By credits.  It’s pretty clear that this problem was too many cooks in the kitchen coupled with the expectations to conform to what was successful in the other films and the end result is an overstuffed messed that doesn’t even manage to be half as good for all that effort.  Maybe it was a mistake trying to focus on one of their own creations rather than LEGO as a whole or a ubiquitous character like Batman, but that’s far from the film’s biggest problem and Warner Bros needs to take a step back before they ruin one of the few franchise they have left that aren’t collapsing in on itself in spectacular fashion.  The whole point of LEGO (and The LEGO Movie to a certain extent) is that creativity is important and always going off of a formula (or instructions I guess) is stifling; yet they’ve managed to just that here.  It’s not a TERRIBLE movie, especially when compared to other kids movie’s we’ve gotten this year (*cough* The Emoji Movie *cough*), but it’s really not worth going to the theater to see when you could just rewatch one of the two better movies at home.  Heck, you can even play with your LEGOs while you watch those!  Stupid theaters.  DON’T QUESTION MY LEGO SKILLS!  I TOTALLY KNOW HOW TO PLAY WITH THEM IN THE DARK!!

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