When I first heard that LEGO was going to produce a movie featuring Ninjago, I was flummoxed. As an adult fan of Lego (AFOL), the entire Ninjago line fell outside my realm of interest when it came to building sets. I hadn’t watched the show, played the games, or even purchased a set outside of 70751 Temple of Airjitzu which I bought on discount one day because I thought it was a brilliant architectural model. Saying that I had any sort of expectation to enjoy a press screening of The LEGO Ninjago Movie this past weekend would be a stretch.
Heading into the second LEGO-themed movie of the year, I couldn’t help but think the movie could use a bit more breathing room on the calendar, coming only seven months after the successful run of The LEGO Batman Movie. This bias seemed confirmed by the sheer amount of marketing I saw for the film, from Ninjago-themed obstacles on American Ninja Warrior to baking a La-Lloyd cake on How to Cake It, all paid opportunities to promote the film. If a movie needs to work this hard to get people to the theater, the movie itself needs all the help it can get, right?
I am not afraid to admit that I was wrong. LEGO worked hard to change my mind. First came the sets, beautiful mechs and impressive ships, that stood their ground with play features AND display value. Then came the Collectible Minifigure Series, with its new bowls, spoons, and scarf pieces that I absolutely had to have. The kicker was 70620 Ninjago City, a set which made me do a double-take at the LEGO Store. Clearly a set of this magnitude, this detail, this PRICE, was targeted solely at the adult fan like me who perhaps had never dipped a toe in Ninjago. But it worked, and I took the plunge and watched the movie.
Overall, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is an entertaining film about daddy issues told in a way that only LEGO can. This is LEGO’s first foray into its cinematic universe with exclusively owned intellectual property. The LEGO Movie included several new characters as well as daddy issues of its own, but the story’s usage of Batman, Gandalf, and Star Wars characters made the movie feel more like a vehicle for cameos. The LEGO Batman Movie nearly tripped over itself with DC Comics/WB-referential humor. Not so with The LEGO Ninjago Movie. While I certainly chuckled out loud several times at a few well-placed jokes (though not as much as the kid guffawing behind me), this movie is different in that it can’t stand on sight gags and cameos alone. The movie does deliver on the humorous expectations set by its predecessors, but it has to work harder to achieve them, often times trying a little too hard to nail a punchline or repeat a joke.
Story-wise, I can summarize the movie simply: Power Rangers meets Captain Planet. The movie opens with a live-action scene of a shop-keeper played by Jackie Chan, who takes a wandering boy under his wing to tell him the true story of Ninjago. (Though he lacks the gravitas and natural command of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius, Chan is more believable as Master Wu than as a souvenir shop worker.) Switching to LEGO form, we discover five unassuming teens (and their robot friend) who are high-school rejects while also being secret ninja warriors in their spare time, each with a different elemental power (earth, fire, water, ice, lightning and green!?). Under the guidance of their aged master, they use their ninja skills and huge robot mechs to defend Ninjago City from a maniacal fatherly menace, all while discovering that true power can be found through family bonds and inside themselves. Sound familiar?
So… the story isn’t the MOST original and falls into well-established movie tropes, however what sets it apart from The LEGO Batman Movie is that LEGO is truly at the core of The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Though that concept seems counterintuitive, consider this: The Lego Batman Movie could have easily been an equally as funny live-action film because hardly any plot elements were purely LEGO-driven. On the other hand, The LEGO Ninjago Movie hinges on the idea that it takes place in the LEGO world. From incredibly smart part usage (showing several characters applying massive stickers) to story details that could only occur in a brick-built world (a character’s arm popping off or a laser pointer leading to a Godzilla-like cat attack), the movie and LEGO are inseparable.
In terms of the actual look of the film, the natural water, fire and earth elements are true to real life rather than animated in LEGO form. This separates The LEGO Ninjago Movie from its two LEGO film forerunners and grants it the unique feeling that the entire story could be acted out by a kid with some LEGO, a hose and a great imagination, with all the action taking place in a grassy backyard (complete with an inquisitive kitty). In comparison to the brick-built effects and changes in perspective in The LEGO Movie’s purely plastic world, The LEGO Ninjago Movie has a fixed point of reference which only increases the feeling that these are toys being played with. The detail of a smudged fingerprint on a minifigure torso, a splashing water droplet on a studded plate, Master Wu’s dirty kimono or even a tooth-marked brick, are all exquisitely rendered to near-real life accuracy. This real life leakage continues with quipping characters referencing a poorly selected Jim Croce song and Good Morning America anchors Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts hilariously lending their voices and likenesses to their LEGO counterparts.The initial wave of related LEGO sets and collectible minifigures are featured in starring roles in the film, meaning kids can nearly reenact the entire movie at home as faithfully as they wish. The sets look great on screen, especially seeing the mechs in action with each ninja controlling their own awesome vehicle. Whereas the majority of sets from previous LEGO-themed movies were tangentially related or only shown for a hot second, the sets from The LEGO Ninjago Movie are faithful (yet smaller) replicas of their stunning on-screen counterparts. (I look forward to the coming mechs and minifigs that will certainly feature in later waves of the movie’s merchandise, but I won’t discuss them here and spoil the surprise.) 70620 Ninjago City seems to be the only set that isn’t immediately identifiable in the film, though if the entire concept and visual look of the film city was compressed down to a 32 x 32 baseplate, it would certainly be accurate.
The voice cast does a great job making their minifigures come to life, though none has a particularly standout performance except for Jackie Chan (Master Wu). Dave Franco as Lloyd and Justin Theroux as Garmadon occupy so much screentime that the talents of Olivia Munn (Koko), Fred Armison (Cole), and Michael Peña (Kai) among others are sadly lost and pushed aside to nominally supporting roles. While I am nowhere near qualified to talk about the differences between the Ninjago television show and this movie in terms of voice cast, tone or story canon, I can say that taken singularly, The LEGO Ninjago Movie stands on its own.
Though the movie includes quite a bit of brick-on-brick action like ninja kicks, explosions, falls from high-up and even the temporary de-arming of the story’s hero, the PG-rated film is incredibly kid-friendly (cultural whitewashing of Asian heritage aside). Only one mid-section crisis evokes the feelings of creepiness that maltreated toys could turn evil (aka Toy Story’s Sid), but even with that, there is little doubt that the heroes will prevail, all while learning the life lessons that family is important and that a ninja’s true power comes from inner peace.
So take some advice from a converted formerly non-Ninjago fan, and give The LEGO Ninjago Movie a fighting chance when it opens this Friday, Sept. 22.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros.
Don’t miss TBB’s other reviews of the sets from The LEGO Ninjago Movie: