LEGO Ninjago Movie, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/26/17 09:07:16
As unexpectedly brilliant as the first Lego Movie was, it's impressive how quickly and thoroughly diminishing returns have set in. This second spin-off isn't really bad, but it shows how precarious a foundation the first was built on, and how it's perhaps not built to last. There was care taken not to overwhelm with "The Lego Movie", a precision in when to make little-kid jokes and when to be satirical or sneakily perceptive, and that's not so present in the follow-ups, with "Ninjago" not having the advantage of being about Batman.There have been some direct-to-video Ninjago movies, although this one seems to start relatively fresh, describing how Ninjago City falls prey to regular attacks by supervillian Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), from his volcano island across the bay. Fortunately, Ninjago City is defended by six secret ninjas in fancy mechs, each representing one of the elements. What the citizens don't know is that those ninjas are teenagers, including Lloyd (voice of Dave Franco), the outcast son of Garmadon. He usually holds it together, but today's his birthday, and his father choosing not to acknowledge it amid his latest attack on the city has Lloyd a little more on-edge, leading him to steal "The Ultimate Weapon" from their mentor Master Wu (voice of Jackie Chan), which of course backfires and forces the ninjas (and Garmadon) to travel to the other side of Ninjago Island and seek out "The Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon".
There are three directors, five editors, and something like a dozen writers or people with "story unit" credits on this movie, and while that's not necessarily unusual in animation, they often seem to be working against each other. For instance, The Ultimate Weapon is something that would seem right at home in the world of The Lego Movie, where one of the best third-act twists in recent memory gave the filmmakers free rein for a lot of absurd self-referential goofiness (but also an earnest emotional core that packs an unexpected wallop), but doesn't really make sense given the live-action bookends with Jackie Chan as a shopkeeper telling a story to a kid who wandered in off the street. It makes the moments of self-parody kind of generic, not clever, pale reflections of what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did so well the first time around rather than things which create the same kind of excitement. It also seems like a case where a lot of people contributing jokes leads to a movie without a specific sense of humor, like no one writer or team could actually get a whole movie out of this, and maybe some of the weirder parts get lost to fit a generic template (the third song over the closing credits, "Dance of Doom", feels like it should have been a number in the movie somewhere but couldn't be fit in).
On top of that, Ninjago just may not be as familiar to everyone in the audience, and not just among adults - my nieces love Legos but have no Ninjago sets. It's not exactly difficult to follow for those of us who aren't familiar with the setting, as it's pretty standard stuff. Dave Franco and Justin Theroux still manage to give a couple of entertaining voice performances as Lloyd and Garmadon; not exceptionally broad but able to sell the jokes, with Theroux doing a pretty decent "guy who has somehow become a villainous mastermind despite being pretty stupid". The more self-referential jokes are generally just okay at best - when tweaking conventions is the convention in a kids' movie, there's kind of nowhere surprising to go - but the slapstick generally works and there are a fair number of good jokes.
A fair number of them are visual, and though the world built out of Lego bricks looks smoother and more obviously CGI than the first (which generally went for the illusion of stop-motion even when that was clearly impossible), it's not exactly a bad look. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as good at staging its big 3D action scenes as either The Lego Movie or even The Lego Batman Movie - though some of the chaos was probably amplified by my preferring to sit one row too close than one row too far, the filmmakers don't really give the audience a lot of time to appreciate how the mechs and other later builds are put together and work, and the action scenes tend to be a lot of bricks flying all over the place rather than a well-choreographed dance (oddly, Chan and his stunt team are credited, but there's nothing that seems like his work).Parents looking for something colorful and not actually harmful to their kids won't go too far wrong with this; it's fast-paced with a few good bits, and has its heart in the right place. It's not sneaky-clever like the "The Lego Movie" or a fun riff on something inclined to take itself too seriously like "The Lego Batman Movie". It's passable, about what people expected of a Lego movie until there actually was a great one.
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