Review: The Lego Ninjago Movie

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Lego Ninjago is apparently far more complicated than I could have possibly known. I missed out on the Ninjago wave of Lego, (BIONICLE was my focus as a child) and while I knew of it’s existence, I didn’t know how expansive or convoluted the franchise was. In addition to the Lego line of playsets (of which there are well over a hundred of at this point) there are also books, graphic novels, at least four video games and a TV series that all detail and expand the world of Ninjago.  Ninjago is not just a loosely connected series of playsets. It’s a genuine franchise all on its own that just happens to be made by Lego.

This puts The Lego Ninjago movie in a bit of an interesting position. The first two Lego movies have been fun comedies, filled with subversive and meta humor. And while the Ninjago franchise is still for kids, it tend to play the whole concept much more straight. This is a story about a group of ninjas and the quests they must go on to save the world. So while we have a movie that leans into the style and feel of the first two movies in the Lego Cinematic Universe, it’s still an adaptation of their own franchise.

The main character in the movie is Lloyd, a teenager whose father is the evil warlord Garmadon that constantly tries to take over the city. Garmadon is always stopped by a group of ninjas that pilot giant mech robots, and it just so happens that Lloyd is the Green Ninja, the leader of the group. Even though we’re told that everybody hates Lloyd because of his dad, Lloyd has five friends, (the alter egos of the other ninjas) from the start of the movie. It seems that this group has been in place for a while. They’re already ninjas. They’ve already built their giant robots, they all have elements that they associate with (fire, water, earth, lighting, etc.) I don’t know how much of the team’s origin we’re expected to know, but in the same way that The Lego Batman Movie assumes you know all about Batman’s backstory already, The Lego Ninjago Movie assumes that you’re up to date enough on the Ninjago story, that it can jump right in. For example, one of the ninjas is a robot. I don’t know if there’s more to that story, who built him, how he came to be a part of the team, anything like that. No, just one of the ninjas is a robot, let’s keep moving.

The plot kicks off when Lloyd uses a forbidden ultimate weapon that he shouldn’t have used against Garmadon. It backfires horribly, and the team’s mechs are destroyed, Garmadon is in charge of the city, and the team must go on a quest to find the ultimate ultimate weapon that can set things right. The story is eerily similar to the Power Rangers movie (not the one from earlier this year, the one from 1995). Our team loses their Mechs which are essentially Zords, and have to find out the true power of the the ninja. In fact the movie pokes fun at a lot of the tropes of the ninja movie, complete with the wise old ninja master and the ninja fight on a rickety bridge overlooking certain death.

Part of the problem is that in the giant cast of characters, nobody is really given time to develop any kind of character. Lloyd has his issues to work out with his father, and his uncle is there to offer sage advice, but there are still five other ninjas on the team, and there is very little time given to any of them. The movie is supposed to be about them coming together as a team, but 5/6th of the team doesn’t get much of anything in the way of a character arc. We get hints of their relationships with one another but nothing that the movie ever takes time to delve into. Really the one standout character is Garmadon, the evil warlord that ends up coming along for a large part of the journey. He’s really the only character that feels like he fits into the bizarre world that the first two movies have created, although part of that may be how much his character seems to be a evil demon version of Lord Business from the first Lego Movie.

The Lego Ninjago Movie is not a bad movie by any stretch. But it doesn’t feel like it holds up to the tone that’s been set by the earlier Lego movies. It’s a fine movie, but it feels a lot like the movie we were all dreading when the first Lego Movie was announced. It comes across as a movie that tries it’s best to be a good movie, and does succeed more often than not, but is still too focused on the fact that at the end of the day, it’s still a commercial for toys. And while it does have some genuinely funny parts, it doesn’t come close to the high expectations that have been set by the earlier installments in the Lego Cinematic Universe franchise.

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