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Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Lego Ninjago Movie

The Lego Ninjago Movie is fine enough for what it is, but it pales in comparison to 2014's original Lego Movie, or even The Lego Batman Movie from just seven months ago.  It feels like Warner Bros. is stretching this franchise a bit too thin here.  There are some laughs to be sure, and the voice acting is fine, but it holds none of the imagination that we expect, and is all around pretty standard for a kids movie.

I think the problem here is that the film forces itself into a very limited and narrow scope.  The previous Lego Movies covered a broad range of subjects and pop culture parody.  Even the Batman film managed to extend beyond the Universe of its subject matter, and give us some hilarious cameos and parodies of outside franchises.  The Ninjago Movie is disappointingly small in this regard.  The movie is based specifically on a line of toys and action figures that have inspired a TV cartoon that I have never seen, but from what I hear, this movie shares little in common with.  Because the filmmakers (which include 3 directors, and a grand total of 9 different writers and story people) choose to limit themselves solely to one universe, they limit their own potential.  The movie lacks the element of surprise of the previous two Lego features.  And since the movie is basically focused solely on its target audience (i.e. the kids who know and enjoy the toys), this movie gives adult animation fans less to enjoy, other than a rare funny throwaway line.

The movie follows a group of teenagers who are secretly heroic ninjas that, like the Power Rangers, wear colored uniforms that are pretty much their sole distinguishing trait.  Well, that and they have different elemental powers.  One can control fire, another ice, yet another earth and rocks, one can call down lightning...You get the idea.  None of the ninjas are given any sort of personality or real defining qualities, save for the fact that one of them is a robot who is trying to pass himself off as a teenage boy. (The movie does absolutely nothing with this idea.) The only one who gets a real background and story arc is the Green Ninja, Lloyd (voice by Dave Franco).  Lloyd may be a superhero whenever trouble strikes the city of Ninjago, but in his real life everyday persona, he's treated as an outcast due to one simple reason - His father (who left his mom and him behind when Lloyd was just a baby) just so happens to be the evil warlord who constantly tries to take over the city everyday, and whom he has to battle with as the Green Ninja.

That would be Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who is constantly plotting to take over the city from his volcano lair that rests just on the outskirts of Ninjago.  More than anything, Lloyd would like to truly get to know his father and make peace with him.  But, Garmadon doesn't seem to remember he even has a son, and whenever they do talk with each other, he mispronounces Lloyd's name. (He calls him "La-loyd", due to the two ls at the front of his name.) Lloyd and the other ninjas have been trained by the wise old Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who is Lloyd's Uncle and the brother of Garmadon.  The battle has lasted for many years, and one day, Lloyd decides that he can finally end it by stealing The Ultimate Weapon, which Master Wu keeps locked away in a chest in his dojo.  With The Ultimate Weapon in hand, Lloyd tries to use it on Garmadon to finish him once and for all.  But, the Weapon turns out to be a laser pointer, and it winds up summoning "Meow-thra", a monster that is actually a live action tabby cat, who terrorizes the Lego world by knocking over the toy buildings, and crushing the vehicles.

Now that Meow-thra is laying waste to the city, Lloyd finds himself an outcast both as a superhero, and as a regular teen.  The solution?  Master Wu leads the ninjas out into the jungle in order to find the only thing that can save Ninjago - The Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon.  Not only can it apparently stop Meow-thra, but it can also unlock our heros' true ninja powers.  Garmadon goes after the Weapon as well, thinking he can use it to conquer the city himself.  The two teams cross paths, and are eventually forced to rely on each other.  This brings Lloyd close to his father for the first time in his life, and the two must work out some complex emotions as they are required to work together.  The scenes between Lloyd and Garmadon come the closest to working, as both Franco and Theroux do some great and very funny line readings in their awkward father-son relationship.  But, just like everything else, not enough is done with it in order for the film to be a success.

The Lego Ninjago Movie is filled with a lot of potentially good ideas that often seem like they weren't fleshed out enough.  When Meow-thra was revealed to be an actual house cat who lays waste to the tiny Lego people and knocks toy planes out of the sky, I smiled.  And then I waited for the filmmakers to truly come up with something other than a cute sight gag with the idea.  They never do.  Once the ninjas and Garmadon leave the city for the jungle, we don't get to see it again until the climactic scene.  I was hoping the movie would cut back to the townspeople trying to deal with this giant rampaging kitty, and maybe come up with some clever monster movie parodies.  Surprisingly, once the action leaves the city for the jungle, the movie seems to run dry on ideas.  Yes, there's the bonding between the hero and villain, but that's not enough to carry the lengthy middle section of the film that seems devoid of ideas.  Other than an encounter with a tribal village made up of Garmadon's former disgruntled employees, nothing much happens.

Another curious thing - The movie opens and ends with a live action sequence where a lonely little boy walks into an Asian market, and meets up with a mysterious shopkeeper (Jackie Chan, again) who tells him the story about the Green Ninja in order to teach the boy to believe in himself.  The obvious question is, why?  Nothing funny or interesting happens during these live action segments, and the movie would be no better or worse without them.  Why did it need a framing device to begin with?  My only guess is that the filmmakers thought having Chan appearing in live action would help the film in some of the foreign markets. 

The Lego Ninjago Movie never offends, but at the same time, it just doesn't do much to stand out.  Yes, I laughed a few times, but nowhere near as frequently as the last two attempts to bring the Lego world to the big screen.  This is pretty much the soulless corporate product that everyone thought the original Lego Movie was going to be.  Either the creative well is starting to run dry, or the studio is now treating it as just another franchise to milk until it stops being profitable.  Both scenarios fill me with sadness.

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