If brands are going to play such a large pat in populist family blockbuster entertainment, we could do much worse than the previous Lego outings. The Lego Movie perfectly adapted concepts of why we love Legos in the first place; touching on themes of creation, individuality and togetherness. Lego Batman is a riff on the entire cinematic history of the Caped Crusader while embracing everything that makes the character work as a whole. So what does Ninjago bring to the table? At first, not much.
The opening act of the film is a haphazard hodgepodge of traditional animated movie fair. Bright colors. Someone who just doesn’t fit in. Loud music. Countless bits of information are thrown at you too early too fast. It’s a cinematic sugar rush that turns sour fast. Part coming-of-age story, part superhero team up, part martial arts homage, all leading up to… something. From the outset, it’s unclear where the movie is headed. One can’t help but think the crew were unsure of themselves either. Adding a live action bookend to open and close the film doesn’t help much and actually detracts from the experience.
But the world of Ninjago is gorgeous to behold. The visual splendor of CGI legos grafting together tapestries of imagination are something only a child could cook up. An ongoing theme of endless wonder will continue to be the heart of this universe wherever they may go. Ninjago (the city) is a feast for your eyes. Gigantic buildings and towering lego robots wander the streets and rise out of the water between day or night. We might as well call it baby’s first Blade Runner. Much like Blade Runner, Ninjago implements a variety of cultures from Eastern Asia. As a person of color, it is disappointment as so few of the cast members are of the same background. That’s not to say anyone isn’t good in the movie (I promise, we’re getting to why I actually liked this movie soon) it just feels like yet another missed opportunity in an ongoing series of them in Hollywood. Although, Kumhail Nanjiani and Jackie Chan are inspired casting choices for their respective roles in the film.
As the story progresses, the sugar coating keeps getting tossed on and on. Tonal inconsistencies spring up like daisies but you can practically feel the movie find its footing after tossing its primary hero, Lloyd (Dave Franco doing pretty remarkable work here), into the chaos of uncertainty.
After establishing conflict, a new status quo and a breadth of ideas to explore over the course of an ongoing adventure, the lego ninjas find themselves on a quest to save their homes. Along the way, the group of ninjas outside of Lloyd aren’t given much to do outside of some fun gimmicks and for that short while you can feel the movie not giving in to its broader superhero team up ideas. It’s about Lloyd and his purpose as a team member, a friend, a son and a growing kid. Everything pertaining to the actual narrative drive and crux of the story is, needless to say, about character and his relationship to his arch-nemesis/father, Lord Garmadon.
However, even after the movie finds its footing, you’ll still find yourself rolling your eyes at the incessant need for jokes to lighten the mood. And sometimes, the constant bickering and comedic beats even attribute to the scene. To make something clear, when Ninjago works, it’s a wonderful time for the whole family. When it doesn’t, there’s still enough on display for the kiddies to enjoy while you take a breather from the barrage of… well, everything. It’s hard to talk about why the ending works as well as it does but for those of you who have parents who were separated, prepare for some heartstrings to be pulled.
Ninjago isn’t so much any single stab at a genre as much as it is using those genre tools to explore a story of enlightenment. Taking cues from Kung Fu Panda and, of course, the first cinematic Lego outing, Ninjago is wholly better than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong, the execution is far from perfect. The wrap up is too tidy and the bookends significantly harm the final film. Look, if this is to be the least successful of the Lego franchise thus far, things could be a whole lot worse. Sometimes, these stories are just good enough.