Editor’s Notes: The LEGO Ninjago Movie opens in wide theatrical release today, September 22nd.
Everything isn’t awesome in Warner Bros.’ latest, cinematic universe-expanding exercise in brand management and IP (intellectual property) exploitation, The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Based on a decade-old line of LEGO toys – thus, minus the nostalgic factor that contributed heavily to the success of 2014’s The LEGO Movie – The LEGO Ninjago Movie centers on Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), a sixteen-year-old high-schooler with an incredibly unpopular father, Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), and a super-secret life as the leader of a color-coded Secret Ninja Force that protects the city of Ninjago on the island of Ninjago from Lord Garmadon’s near daily attempts at conquest. Garmadon’s villainy extends beyond his island-conquering desires: He’s also a deadbeat dad, an absentee father whose egotism and narcissism has left him incapable of the whole fatherhood thing. Instead, Garmadon and his son work out their long-simmering, unresolved issues in and on the city streets of Ninjago, Garmadon in his shark-powered war machine and Lloyd in a green, dragon-shaped mech of his own.
. . . cinematic universe-expanding exercise in brand management and IP (intellectual property) exploitation.
As the Green Ninja, Lloyd is every Ninjago citizen’s hero, but as Lloyd, son of Lord Garmadon, he’s practically a villain. The citizens of Ninjago apparently have no problem extending the sins of the father, Garmadon, to his (supposedly innocent) son, Lloyd. Luckily for Lloyd, he might be hissed and booed by his fellow Ninjago citizens, including most of his high-school mates, but he’s tight with the other members of the Secret Ninja Force, Cole (Fred Armisen), the DJ-spinning Black Ninja, the self-doubting Blue Ninja, Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), the hot-tempered Red Ninja, Kai (Michael Peña), the robotic White Ninja, Zane (Zach Woods), and the motorcycle-riding Silver Ninja, Nya (Abbi Jacobson). It probably helps that Lloyd retains Master Builder status, at least when it comes to the mechs he builds and maintains for his friends. Despite their name, there’s little of a ninja’s ways in Lloyd or his team’s behavior or actions. Even with the help of Master Wu (Jackie Chan), Garmadon’s long-estranged brother, the Secret Ninja Force puts its faith on technology, not canned wisdom about inner peace and oneness with nature from a bearded, martial arts master.
When Lloyd, in a fit of pique at Lord Garmadon’s shortcomings as a father, unleashes the Ultimate Weapon, it immediately backfires, leaving the city and island of Ninjago in a precarious predicament at the claws and paws of a monstrous feline, leaving Lloyd and his team, along with Master Wu, with only recourse: To find and retrieve the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon on the other side of the jungle-heavy island. That, of course, necessitates a physical, emotional, and even spiritual journey for Lloyd and his cohorts. Through one or two contrivances, Lloyd’s journey becomes far more complicated when he’s forced to temporarily ally himself with Lord Garmadon, giving Lloyd the not-quite perfect opportunity to work out his daddy issues with his deeply flawed, intractable father (an ongoing, possibly the only theme in the LEGO universe) while escaping any manner of foes and obstacles, including a coalition of Lord Garmadon’s ex-generals eager to exact their revenge on their former dictatorial boss.
Three films into what Warner Bros. hopes and expects will be a lucrative, long-running, cinematic universe-spanning series and it’s already apparent that formulaic storytelling might be the biggest threat to the LEGO universe’s longevity.
Three films into what Warner Bros. hopes and expects will be a lucrative, long-running, cinematic universe-spanning series and it’s already apparent that formulaic storytelling might be the biggest threat to the LEGO universe’s longevity. From the father-son quibbling, a conflict borrowed almost wholesale from The LEGO Batman Movie to the chaotic, anarchic set pieces and the live-action, wrap-around segments – a mind-expanding revelation in The LEGO Movie three years ago, completely unnecessary here – to the scattershot approach to humor (high, low, and everything in between) aimed at both children and adults, The LEGO Ninjago Movie feels like it was cobbled together by committee made up of corporate executives, producers, and screenwriters (probably because it was) than the organic, endlessly inventive first entry in the series. Of course, The LEGO Movie came with few expectations, but once it became a commercial and critical hit, no doubt due to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s contributions as writers and directors, everything that followed would have to fit into the formula or template Lord and Miller inadvertently created.
At least The Batman LEGO Movie had the benefit of decades of pop-culture/comic-book history as inspiration. The LEGO Ninjago Movie has just a decades worth (toys, a long-running TV series) and it shows in the derivative, second-rate ideas, the hit-or-miss jokes that miss more than they hit, and underutilized secondary characters, especially non-male characters who barely merit a few minutes of screen time each. Maybe the next, inevitable entry in the LEGO cinematic universe will go in a different, more radical direction and flip the script gender wise. It probably won’t, but it should.
At least The Batman LEGO Movie had the benefit of decades of pop-culture/comic-book history as inspiration. The LEGO Ninjago Movie has just a decades worth (toys, a long-running TV series) and it shows in the derivative, second-rate ideas, the hit-or-miss jokes that miss more than they hit.