REVIEW – “Lego Ninjago” Lacks That Special Lego Nicheyness

by Joe Hammerschmidt

I will not say that Warner Animation’s still promising Lego Movieverse is already jumping the shark; however, the wider their net is cast, the closer they turn into a target of ejection by volcano. That being said, unlike what came before it, The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t expend enough energy to break new ground, even with a new playground to explore. One will find the usual Legoverse breeziness and humor, which still comes naturally thanks to a comically diverse cast. Flip the other side of the coin, however, and you’re left with a film that doesn’t quite reach its maximum potential. The film always holds something back in the hopes it can unleash everything in the climax, yet it never does. What suffers most is your characterization. Each cast member contributes to the humor, yet lacks a distinct personality even with their separate powers.

Lloyd (Dave Franco) is in the middle as the Green Ninja, one in a group of six high-schoolers who work within the shadows of their beachside town as protection against the nefarious Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). His role is to serve as the unifying bond which keeps the rest of his Ninjago squad in line. Combined with his close cohorts Kai (Michael Peña) the Fire Ninja, cautious lightning summoner Jai (Kumail Nanjiani), water bender Nya (Abbi Jacobson), audiophilic earth wheeler Cole (Fred Armisen), and the robotic ice-maker Zane (Zach Woods), the group move as one symbolic unit, under the tutelage of the aging Master Wu (Jackie Chan) to consistently keep Ninjago out of any serious harm, using many outlandish, and kid-friendly, weapons and vehicles as one could possibly muster. At least, until family manages to take a higher precedence.

As unwilling as everyone is to admit, Garmadon is Lloyd’s dad; he and wife/mother Koko (Olivia Munn) had split up just as Lloyd was growing up, not quite knowing who his father truly was, a warlord with serious flaws. You’re probably saying, he’s nowhere near upstanding father material, but Garmodon still gives it his best go, through a string of cheesy family bonding scenes. The hero’s journey is in seeking a solution to an attack strike gone awry: the evil cat Meowthra, a combination of a real cat and possibly the most realistic CGI animation for an animal character this year.

Opening the film with an old-school WB logo, and a framing device where the live-action cat, and an equally live Jackie Chan, Ninjago starts out promisingly for an animated kung-fu comedy. But spend a little more time, and you’ll be left running just on the one-liners alone without finding a tight enough grasp on the story. There’s just not much to find as whatever the large writer’s room (9 names total) found to be the most earth-shattering went against the easier goal of just playing it safe, knowing an anchor was set through the groundwork laid by the first two Legoverse works that couldn’t possibly topple the empire. The action comedy angle can only work for so long before falling into a slight drudgery, that when you reach the true backbone of the origin story between father and son, its impact just leaves a sour taste.

Supervising director Charlie Bean, w/assistance from credited writers Paul Fisher and Bob Logan do strive to give the audience a fun time despite their self-imposed challenges. Every joke lands well, each sight gag hits the mark appropriately, and the heartfelt spots are all well-placed; otherwise, it’s a jumbled mess in need of some rearranging. There’s no flow for action to run on a consistent level with the dramatise; every scene just stops itself flat in its tracks and spends too many precious seconds picking back up where it left off.

And were it not for the stellar comedic casting, those faults would’ve been in line for a worse distraction. The supporting performances are well at home behind a mic, especially Silicon Valley co-stars Woods and Nanjiani; the former portrays a far more limiting role as the robot ninja, but is still a champion in his own right for making the role a part of his actor’s identity, though more the reverse. Yet the centrifugal force that prevents the film from completely halting is between Franco (the still burgeoning character actor under his older brother’s shadow, last seen in a winning multi-layered role in The Little Hours), and Theroux (most recently an eager delight on The Leftovers) as father and son. Lloyd, the obligatory high school punching bag is convincing as such, and more when faced with the most intense form of family therapy. His rapport with Ol’ Garms is as relatable as it could be, with Theroux raising the bar a little higher for future “strictly cartoony” villains like him, never once devolving into a stereotype.

With the reasons listed above, The Lego Ninjago Movie proves once again no cinematic universe can be perfect. It’s not entirely a trainwreck, and the elbow grease does pop up from time to time, yet it still can’t salvage much. A few tired formulas, established high-quality animation, an impeccable comedic assault, and a story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when it’s supposed to make for one mixed bag that will still appeal to the core youngster crowd. Yet for the older set (and kids-at-heart) who found much to the love with the philosophical gravitas of the original Lego Movie or the pop-culture campiness of Lego Batman, there’s no kitschy niche to hook to, many will be lost floating around hunting for the film’s inner meaning. It’s still a fun trip that should harken back to good old kung-fu movie principles, but just don’t expect to find anything more substantial. (C+)

The Lego Ninjago Movie opens this weekend at most area theaters; rated PG for some mild action and rude humor; 101 minutes.