The Lego Movie franchise had to stumble eventually, right?
While The Lego Ninjago Movie will no doubt entertain hardcore fans of either the Ninjago-themed Cartoon Network TV series or Lego’s Ninjago toy line, The Lego Ninjago Movie is a lazy addition to this standout franchise that often entertains but never engages.
There are plenty of self-aware laughs to be had in the film’s 100-minute runtime, but The Lego Ninjago Movie lacks the heart of either of its Lego Movie predecessors. By the time you leave the theater, you will no doubt have already moved on from this shallow tale of father-son bonding wrapped up in a culturally-appropriated aesthetic of feudal Japan.
Ninjago follows the character of Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), the 16-year-old son of Ninjago’s conquering villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Garmadon lives just off the coast of Ninjago City, in his very own volcano lair, where he attacks Lloyd’s hometown once a day. As you might imagine, being the son of a homicidal, four-armed supervillain does not make Lloyd popular with the other kids. He spends most of his time with his five friends: Kai (Michael Pena), Cole (Fred Armisen), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), and Zane (Zach Woods). Together, Lloyd and his friends make up a band of masked teenage ninjas, trained by Lloyd’s uncle sensei Master Wu (Jackie Chan) to protect the city from Garmadon.
It’s a fun premise, but one Ninjago doesn’t spend enough time setting up this Power Rangers-like team of heroes. This crew needed a more complete origin story. It’s like watching The Return of the Jedi without having seen the first two movies. Sure, it’s fun, but why do we care about this Luke Skywalker kid, his friend group, or his complicated family dynamics?
By the end of The Lego Ninjago Movie, I still can’t tell you which character has which color-power combination (red-fire, black-earth, gray-water, blue-lightning, and white-ice), let alone any personality characteristics. (Although Nanjiani’s Jay provides some of the film’s biggest laughs.) We cheer for Lloyd and his friends not because we want to, but because there’s nothing else to do with this movie.
Ninjago throws most of its energy into telling a paint-by-numbers father-son narrative, which might have been prudent if the whole thing didn’t play as flat as as the sides of smooth plastic blocks. This is a problem not only because this story has been told about a million times before, but because Ninjago never bothers to convince us that Garmadon deserves a redemption arc. This is a dude who gets up every morning and decides to wreak havoc, and not even because of some half-hearted villain origin story; he does it because it’s on brand.
Past that, Lloyd is the latest in a long line of lackluster movie Chosen Ones who becomes a hero not because he is particularly smart, brave, or kind, but because he is the golden-haired male with the familial connections. Lloyd’s alter ego is the “Green Ninja,” a vague descriptor that feels more like code for “Nepotism Ninja” than what the movie eventually tries to convince us it means. This is particularly frustrating in a franchise that cleverly picked apart the Chosen One narrative in its first film.
Perhaps the most glaring problem Ninjago has as a film is not in its plot, but in its purpose. The Lego Movie lampooned the Chosen One narrative in hilarious, clever, and heartfelt ways. The Lego Batman Movie took on the ubiquitous superhero narrative. The Lego Ninjago Movie should do the same for the rich ninja movie tradition.
However, there is something unsettling about seeing a predominantly white creative team make a movie starring mostly white voice-actors about a popular art form that hails from another, non-white part of the world. There is a seeming lack of interest and understanding in the culture or even pop culture this movie ostensibly aims to explore.
The carefully-constructed cultural subversion and homage we get into the subjects of the first two Lego movies is missing here, and it leaves The Lego Ninjago Movie feeling frustratingly shallow.