Starring (Voices): Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan
Directors: Charlie Bean, Bob Logan, Paul Fisher
Running Time: 101 mins
Synopsis: In the realm of Ninjago City, the evil Lord Garmadon (Theroux) constantly lays siege to the city in order to rule. All that stands in his way is the skilled ninjas taught by the legendary Master Wu (Chan). As their leader, the infamous Green Ninja (aka Lloyd) faces an even bigger challenge as Garmadon is also his father, daddy issues weighing heavily on the battle for the city.
Franchise fatigue is a very real threat in Hollywood. Its love of sequels, prequels and brand recognition giving rise to cheap corner cutting. Once a film becomes successful, critically and commercially, it can be all too easy to churn out the same thing again and again, confident that an audience will turn out no matter what. However this only works to a point, and the US box office opening for this latest Lego instalment proves that audiences are already catching wind of this property’s lack of new ideas. It is certainly a shame as The Lego Movie stormed out of the gate, surprising everyone, with its wit, energy and deep emotional core. The Lego Batman Movie, whilst weaker, still hooked with a loving play on the comic book genre, terrific voice work and a visual style that rewarded multiple views. However you could detect the distinct whiff of formula seeping in.
Whip smart humour that crosses the line between adult and child, eye popping visuals that leave you breathless with their momentum and broad if potent themes championing togetherness, individuality and creativity. Ninjago follows those beats far too closely resulting in something that entertains but winds up becoming forgettable. Problems immediately arise with the universe itself. Whilst The Lego Movie had the entire brand to play with, and Lego Batman had its recognisable characters, Ninjago is left feeling weightless in comparison. A strange amalgamated world of East and West but one with little personality to latch onto. There could’ve been potential in perhaps referencing and playing with the martial arts genre and Eastern culture but any such influences are barely registered. A sequence that bookends the film set in the real world is utterly superfluous, seemingly an attempt to ape the clever Will Ferrell starring segments in the first film, but coming across with little in the way of passion. After 101 mins I was still left unawares as to what sort of rules this universe operated in, a major barrier when it comes to hooking an audience in.
Story wise it fares not much better. Broad strokes is that the city of Ninjago is under constant threat from the evil Lord Garmadon, attacking the population from underneath his menacing looking volcano lair. Standing in his way are the Ninjas, schoolkids (an angle this film could’ve played with more) who moonlight as the city’s defenders fighting in giant robots for reasons unknown. However the central plot mechanism is the fact that Garmadon is also the father of lead ninja Lloyd voiced by Dave Franco. An absentee father, repeated moments of his awful parenting offer solid chuckles, with Lloyd desperately seeking some sort of recognition. As events play out father and son learn to reconnect in what is some pretty basic sermonising. If some of it manages to touch the heart that is more down to the voice work of its lead performers, but even the youngest of children will find the final moments far too saccharine to stomach. There is nothing wrong with playing to the younger crowd, after all this is a kids film, but previous outings at least gifted the adults in the audience something a little deeper and affecting to work with.
There is an element of drag at play here. The plot never really locking into a clear end goal, outside of some mystical quest for the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon so as to combat the release of the Ultimate Weapon (humour is still this franchise’s best feature). The Ultimate Weapon turning out to be an actual living pussycat being a piece of comedy gold. At least the sly wit and rapid fire humour is still present and correct. The prime source being Justin Theroux as Garmadon. A stonkingly funny vocal performance, full of strange inflections and offbeat line readings. It certainly helps that he is given the best dialogue to work with. Other voice performances are decent if nothing spectacular. Jackie Chan going for his usual sagely playfulness, and a bevy of stand-up performers doing what they can with the hit and miss script. Yes whilst the comedy is still more hit than miss, there is a noticeable hint of a scattershot approach. The credited 6(!) writers offering fewer of the tongue in cheek wordplay that so dominated the last two outings.
Visually The Lego Ninjago Movie fits right in, whilst never really pushing the technology to its limits. Action sequences never coming alive with invention as they did before. The whole thing just reeks of a franchise spinning its wheels. Latching onto whatever it can within its brand to keep the $ rolling in, and whilst it doesn’t fully demolish the goodwill built up from before, it certainly makes me pray that The Lego Movie 2 (2019) will spend its time attempting to break away from what is fast becoming a tired formula.
Verdict: Whilst still displaying a gift for witty asides, visual energy and vocal dexterity, The Lego Ninjago Movie represents a franchise that is fast becoming boringly familiar.