The LEGO Ninjago Movie is exactly what you’d expect from the Lego film franchise, and that’s the best and worst thing about it. Good, in the sense that Lego has set up a reliable assembly line of cinematic experiences. Even the worst movie in the blockchain will still be watchable. Bad, because Ninjago is that movie. In a Lego universe consisting of three feature films, Ninjago’s the bottom of the franchise.
The outrageous Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) attacks the Asian-inspired city of Ninjago, which is also the name of a movie you may have heard of, named Ninjago. Every day, Garmadon tries to conquer Ninjago (the city). Garmadon is opposed by a team of ninjas, who drive mechs and protect Ninjago (the city). The mentor of the ninja team is Master Wu (Jackie Chan), Garmadon’s brother.
Little does Garmadon know, the ninja team is secretly a group of high school friends—the leader, the nervous one, the fire one, the obvious robot pretending to be human, the girl, and the DJ. Later, in the second act, the team will discover they possess incredible, elemental powers, and yes, I’m aware every line I type could have been ripped from the begrimed back cover of a 1991 VHS sleeve. Bear with me, for we do nothing petty when we speak of Ninjago.
The leader of the team is the creatively named Green Ninja, who is actually teenager Lloyd Garmadon, son of Lord Garmadon. The two are estranged. Garmadon is a full-time conqueror and a real half-assed father. So: Lego Vader and Lego Luke. Garmadon doesn’t know that Lloyd is the Green Ninja. Got that relationship in mind? Good. That’s the emotional crux of the entire movie.
Green Ninja is beloved. But, twist! Everyone in the city knows that Lloyd is Garmadon’s kid. Drape the Spider-man and Peter Parker dynamic over Vader and Luke. That’s where we are.
Because Ninjago is part of a solid line of goods, it’s not as bad as it could be—as it should be. Think of a World War I era officers’ mess, back when they gave the grunts starvation rations and the college boys Baked Alaska. Ninjago is the 3 AM leftover at the officer’s brunch; it’s the box wine served at the Hilton before closing time. Imagine the worst shoe in the Prada warehouse, or when Seinfeld stopped trying, or a Jaguar plastered with tasteless bumper stickers.
This is the first time a Lego film felt like a toy movie.
The lesser light of Ninjago shines dull and even. The boredom comes from the watcher’s awareness that this is, in fact, a Phil Lord and Chris Miller production, and so we expect so much more. The winks and sly nods towards the audience only serve to dew-glisten the plot engine, which is creaking with a solemn, dull regularity. It’s like watching a paint-by-numbers Pollock dry: the shape is reliably inventive, but in the most predictable way. This pilgrim’s progress travels by reliable Cliffs Notes. It has the same ritual quality that threatened the slower parts of Lego Batman movie.
In regard to the voice talent—this is an unremarkable display. Jackie Chan is serviceable, but wasted. Dave Franco tries. Olivia Munn tries. They all try. The standout is Theroux, who is doing an absolutely inspired imitation of Will Arnett’s Bruce Wayne. When the movie covers Garmadon’s fabulous career of depravity, the narrative lifts from its rut, but only long enough to remind us that we are here for centuries.
The end result?Ninjago seems emotionally interesting during, and immediately boring afterward. There are plenty of parts to this movie that work and moved me, but they’re mired in a whole that doesn’t seem to recognize what’s really working. With nine writers and one-hundred-and-one minutes—at the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney’s reanimated husk—you’d think that would be enough to do a complete job.
Director: Charlie Bean
Writer: Hilary Winston, Bob Logan, Paul Fisher
Starring: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan, Olivia Munn, Fred Armisen
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Jason Rhode is watching everything, including you, right now.