The ‘LEGO Ninjago Movie’ may actually be the best yet

 By Jonathan Shuping

September 21, 2017

A recent convo with my 6-year-old went like this:

Him: Whoa. Dad. I just realized, I’m watching an Amazon show on my tablet and there’s an Amazon package on the front porch… Is Amazon taking over the world?

Me: Well, Amazon or Netflix. Who do you think?

Him: Hmm… Legos.

It’s actually a decent argument. Besides the LEGO toy sets, there are theme parks, retail stores, a children’s clothing line, video games, board games, books, magazines, TV shows, and now movies. The Lego expansion into pop culture is pretty massive.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Now, as a father of two, there are three things I know for sure about LEGOs:

  1. They are expensive as hell.
  2. Un-assembled, they can turn into a LEGO-explosion mess.
  3. They really hurt your bare feet when you step on them in the dark.

These are all negatives concerning the toys themselves, but the LEGO movies thus far have been surprisingly entertaining, and the latest, riskiest entry in the LEGO film series is The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

First off, this is not an origin story. If you’re expecting a typical this-is-how-they-became-superheroes tale, you won’t find it here. Ninjago dives right into its saga of teenage super-ninjas as fully established heroes and it’s kind of a relief, with the over-saturation of the movie market with superhero origin films these days.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The main character is Lloyd (Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, who diligently works alongside his fellow ninjas to protect the island of Ninjago from the dastardly shark-themed attacks of evil warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). While the Green Ninja is adored for his bravery by the LEGO masses, his secret alter ego Lloyd is ostracized by his high school classmates because of the fact that his father just so happens to be Garmadon, and is constantly trying to destroy them all. Lloyd just wants acceptance from his dad. Garmadon just wants to conquer the world. All families have issues.

Justin Theroux is absolutely outstanding as Garmadon, passively-aggressively offending his son while hilariously ejecting insolent employees from his volcano-base. Sure, he gets all the best lines but he positively slays every single one of them. Along with Theroux and Franco, Jackie Chan, Fred Armisen, Michael Pena, Abbi Jacobson, and Silicon Valley co-stars Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods round out the incredible voice cast.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There was something visually jarring about the previous two LEGO movies in the background; a flat, two-dimensional feeling as if only the forefront was important and everything beyond could simply be blurred into irrelevance. As spoiled viewers in a Pixar/DreamWorks animation world, it was an aesthetic that took some time to adapt to. But that is not the case in The LEGO Ninjago Movie, with extravagant sets that pop and breathe with depth and detail.

That detail is necessary for the type of story that LEGO Ninjago tells. There’s a major Japanese pop culture vibe flowing throughout. Each ninja represents one of the worldly elements. They have mechs (giant robotic animal-vehicles). There is an overarching theme about the search for existential purpose, and, of course, there is a quest, led by Master Wu whose bow staff doubles as a jazz flute with which to serenade the mission with all manner of old-school tunes. These are all the parts of LEGO Ninjago that will thrill kids (and the kid inside of grown-up geeks everywhere).

The script is sharp and intelligent and doesn’t rely on reverting to the same joke again and again, perhaps thanks to the exhaustive but effective efforts of the film’s six credited screenwriters. There’s plenty of exciting adventure for kids and laugh-out-loud humor for adults, including one great scene where Garmadon hunts for Lloyd’s ripped-off arm (if you’re a parent who has ever searched for a single elusive phantom piece, it’s a beat that really hits home).

While live-action scenes were utilized in the first LEGO Movie to a disarming effect and were subsequently absent from The LEGO Batman Movie, their return in LEGO Ninjago actually hits the intended mark, with a poignant frame story that totally works within and without the Ninjago plot and perfectly sets up the monstrous LEGO-destroying live-action cat ‘Meowthra’ – another call-back to Japanese “kaiju” monster movies.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The first LEGO movie was clever, funny, and captured the imaginative nature of the toys, but it also safely spring-boarded off pop culture tie-ins like Star Wars and super heroes. The LEGO Batman Movie certainly capitalized off some built-in crowd pleasers but didn’t seem to quite grasp the meta aspect of the toys themselves. The LEGO Ninjago Movie, without the assistance of the well-known fan favorites as a safety net, may actually be the best yet.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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