Just as a critic is ready to stop preceding praise for a Lego Movie with the adverb ‘surprisingly’, the franchise delivers a dud. The Lego Ninjago Movie is every bit as commercially dominated as you were sure that The Lego Movie was going to be but wasn’t. Yes, for fans of its two surprisingly great predecessors, this latest $70m advert is every bit like stepping barefoot on a rogue brick. Not quite a total shambles, it may already be time to call it a day on Lego cinema.
In a relatively promising live-action opening, a young boy strolls into a cave of wonders styled shop of pseudo east Asian collectibles owned by the mysterious Mr. Liu (Jackie Chan – complete with a fun, requisite martial arts display). When the boy dismisses his little, one-armed Lego man as unimportant, Mr. Liu insists of the need to see things ‘from a different point of view’ and begins the tale of ‘the legend behind the legend of a Ninjago’ – FYI that’s a portmanteau of ‘ninja’ and ‘Lego’ and available in all good retailers.
Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) is the scourge of Ninjago City. His regular attacks are destructive but consistently perturbed by the city’s secret ninja force (aka: Lego Power Rangers): the black one, white one, blue one, red one, silver one and green one. Each ninja has an element (i.e. like the Bionicles) except Lloyd (Dave Franco), perhaps emblematic of his identity issues, the ones rooted in the fact that he is actually the sixteen-years abandoned son of Garmadon and, when out of his suit disguise, is hated by most of the city: ‘His Dad ruins everything’. When a resentful Lloyd attempts to wield ‘the ultimate weapon’ against his father, the entire city is brought to its knees by a feline menace. Thus, Lloyd, along with Garmadon and the rest of the ninjas, must go on a quest through the Forest of Dangers to retrieve ‘the ultimate ultimate weapon’ and get some long-overdue father-son bonding done in the process.
Neither as emotionally resonant as The Lego Movie, nor as deliriously funny as The Lego Batman Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie is an ultimately tiresome imitation of substantially better films, including the aforementioned plastic brick outings. There’s more than a little of the Kung Fu Panda going on here, both thematically and also in its Americanisation of east-Asian culture – China for the former and, supposedly, Japan in the latter. Chan is your sole representative of non-American principle acting in this one and it’s of no surprise that, despite being best known for action comedy, he is reduced to voicing the wise Mr Liu and Master Wu, when in Lego form. When it comes to the interwinding of animation and live-action, meanwhile, Ninjago leans more towards The Lego Movie, albeit forces this rather more redundantly. There is no logical coherency in how these films are supposed to work whatsoever – it didn’t used to matter.
Scripted by an absurdly extended roundtable of six men, with some crossover to Lego Batman in the forms of Jared Stern and John Whittington, there’s very little of the warmth of first-film writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller here, with often irritating wisecracks outweighing funnier gags. Much as before, plenty of time is devoted to parodying genre stereotypes but now in a routine and perfunctory fashion: ‘They don’t even have cool suits…maybe we spend too much on suits?’ A joke in which Abbi Jacobson’s Silver Ninja is referred to as ‘the female’ one goes nowhere; the writers simply recognise the fault and just go with it. She’s a total stereotype but at least she has a character; the rest of the team, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Fred Armison and Zach Woods, are mirthlessly interchangeable. Exposition comes courtesy of Kate Garraway and Ben Shepherd’s random news bulletins, whilst an ear-scraping soundtrack pumps out inane pop and the same tedious arrangement of ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ that was used for the 2014 Annie remake.
Things become more bearable as the film tumbles along, particularly when the plot exits the city and discovers a visual identity, but there’s precious little ‘awesome’ here. Ninja-no thank you.