Overview: The Lego cinematic universe expands with ninjas, shark guns, kaiju and a return to daddy issues. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2017; Rated PG; 101 minutes.
Everything is Too Awesome: If you’ve ever wondered why Legos continue to endure as a pop culture item, look no further than the Lego Movie cinematic universe. Stacks of evidence in the broad stroke writing, wit, and visual invention in every outing thus far feels perfectly imagined from the mind of a child. To paraphrase AE’s own Josh Rosenfield, it doesn’t need to make logical sense as long as the emotional logistics are in place. It takes a minute for the meat of the story to present itself but, once it does, it’s a meal worth trying. There just might be too much sugar coated onto the proceedings at the start.
Think back to “Spaceship!” from the original Lego Movie, arguably the best movie ever made. “Spaceship!” works as a funny gag when it’s built up through several sequences before finally unleashing an explosion of hyper-visual comedy in a surprisingly short time frame. It’s something that could only be described as a sugar rush. Ninjago starts off full blast, throwing character names and exposition at the screen with not a care in the world – not yet, anyway. It’s solid child entertainment during the opening adventure in media res in the lego world. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t start in the Lego world. It’s opened with a live-action framing device to give it an old storybook feel. Jackie Chan helps a young boy learn the story of courage, or something, by recounting an adventure in the Lego world of Ninjago.
Ninjago is a seaside city protected by teenagers who moonlight as ninjas (in name only) who fight in giant mechs against the evil Garmadon. Garmadon is a being of pure evil, hundreds of years old and father of our protagonist, Lloyd. Lloyd (literally pronounced L-loyd) is insecure about every aspect of his social life and takes his mother for granted while trying to reach out to a father who only causes problems for him and the city he loves. Did I mention there are giant mechs? Robot dragons, octopi and giant shark guns (as in, guns that shoot live sharks) are all thrown at the screen within minutes of the adventure starting. If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. The blockbuster scale action and central character motivations are clear as day but the actual story the movie wants to tell is unclear. We spend both too much time and too little with the supporting cast who, outside of Jackie Chan as Uncle Wu, need to be fleshed out further outside of merely archetypes reduced to their most elemental functions within the story. It wants to be Avengers or Power Rangers but can’t maintain the character balance. Then something happens within the end of the first act.
The Good, the Bad and the Lego: A major turning point occurs where all the pieces, slowly but surely, kick in to tell the story we’ve been avoiding for the opening. Ninjago is an adventure in self-actualization, regret, and parents. Now, these ideas are all correlated through each Lego movie thus far; i.e, creativity, confronting parental trauma, recognizing individuals and community as necessities. There’s no need to defend this thematic repetition. Consider that all Indiana Jones movies are structurally identical as well. It’s only the inner workings and execution that make these stories actively differ from one another. Make no mistake, it certainly gets zanier as it progresses. The wackiness reaches critical mass in a masterstroke of a kaiju homage with a creature named “Meowthra” as the Ultimate Weapon. It is exactly what you think it is and I promise it’s even better when you watch it on screen. An emotional core of absurdity grounds the remainder of the film as an honest and true experience, even when the incessant jokes keep coming 100 miles an hour.
That being said, there is one glaring issue that holds it back further than any misstep in the opening acts. Stories like this continue taking Asian iconography and adapting them to stories without focusing on people within their respective cultures. The surrounding quality of the movie is lessened for it. It’s an animated movies about legos. Nobody is going to Ninjago to see Justin Theroux voice a centuries old villain with four arms. Jackie Chan and Kumhail are the only Asian voices present in the film and only Jackie Chan gets a decent amount of voice time. There are no excuses. Do better.
The Secret Ultimate Weapon: Now despite that glaring flaw, here’s the part where I get candid about parental stuff in Ninjago. All cards on the table, when Ninjago starts firing on all cylinders, it resonated with me deeply as a child of divorce. When you’re younger, it’s common for people to build their perception of you based on your parents. Having parents who are separated leads you down a seemingly endless rabbit hole where the topic of divorce has to be the one thing people avoid talking about or never shut up about. To date, I have people still asking me if I’m okay with the decision my parents made as if me saying “no” would have changed anything. Not that that should have changed anything in the first place. Children aren’t able to make decisions with those kind of factors. Even as someone in their mid-20s, there’s just no easy answer to a question like that. What I do know is sometimes things not working out in the short term can help things get better in the long run. People aren’t puzzles to be figured out and put in the preordained box of a nuclear family. We’re complicated people from all different walks of life who just try to make things work as best we can for ourselves and those closest to us. To see a movie address that with CG legos is… honestly, I don’t even know what to write here. I’m speechless. Good job, movie.
After spending the majority of its runtime having characters confronting hard truths about their lives, choices they’ve made, and even a finale that deals directly in mea culpa, Ninjago closes as it opens: With an awkward bookend and tidy footnote that feels too calculated, too safe and too focused on mass appeal. There’s a chance my personal experience is getting in the way or maybe the post-climax resolution really is too tidy for its own good. Either way, I’m glad a movie like Ninjago still managed to sneak in something a little extra into its cotton candy colored extravaganza of a narrative. It gives the film a staying power most feature films can’t process, even if it can’t hold onto that creative spark.
Final Thoughts: Lego Ninjago stumbles and falters before reaching to emotional heights with genuine character drama. Too bad the bookends put a damper on the whole thing.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.