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The Lego Ninjago Movie

Some family business and other circumstances beyond my control demanded that I take a rather lengthy hiatus. A lot has happened and I’ve got a ton to catch up on, so it’s time for another fun round of Grab Bag Cinema, when I go to my local theater and pick a movie at random. Today’s winner: The Lego Ninjago Movie.

To be honest, I was not looking forward to this one. Much as I loved The Lego Movie as everyone else did, it’s time for us all to accept that it was a beautiful fluke that should never have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Especially since studios would later take that success as a license to churn out other branded movies with minimal effort and virtually no understanding of why The Lego Movie succeeded. (Looking at you, The Emoji Movie.)

That said, we did get The Lego Batman Movie, which was pretty good. Not nearly as good as its predecessor, but still pretty good. It still had that tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that neatly spoke to the kid in all of us who wanted to mash up all our favorite things together in a brilliantly creative no-holds-barred kind of way.

But the trailers for The Lego Ninjago Movie had me worried that this was a bridge too far. I was seriously concerned that this was the point when the franchise would be content to simply use the same style of humor over and over again without any of the wit or enthusiasm we had seen from the franchise to date. Nothing kills humor like repetition, and nothing kills a film about creativity like sticking to a rote formula.

Alas, it turns out that the movie was something much worse than I had expected.

The film is bookended with live-action segments in which a misfit boy (Kaan Guldur) stumbles into a shop run by a character played by Jackie Chan. The shopkeeper begins telling the story of Ninjago, and we’re immediately hit with a cavalcade of Good Morning America references, complete with Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan playing Lego versions of themselves.

What the hell is this?

On one hand, we’ve got a very basic and timeless setup in which a wise old storyteller imparts a tale full of wisdom to a young protagonist (see also: The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, etc.). On the other hand, we’ve got the fast-paced and reference-heavy premise of a young boy given unlimited time and Lego pieces to build a story (the foundation of the first movie, and heavily implied in the presentation of Lego Batman). But these two approaches are not the least bit compatible. The way everything unfolds, there’s no way to know who’s telling the story and this inconsistency sinks the film right out of the gate.

But wait, it gets worse.

In one corner is Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who lives in his volcano lair just offshore from the city of Ninjago. On a regular basis, he employs an army of millions all armed with top-of-the-line mechs to invade and destroy Ninjago. Why? Because he’s evil. That’s pretty much all we ever get. He’s evil and petty and full of himself, and that’s supposed to be funny. Even after the millionth goddamn time it gets pounded into our head that he’s evil just for the sake of it. He does get a redemptive arc eventually, but the film is halfway over by then and I was long past the point of giving a fuck.

In the other corner is the Secret Ninja Force, a group of six teenagers with colorful costumes, hiding their identities as they fight off Garmadon’s forces with their giant robots. As a former Power Rangers kid, I have to admit that this stuff hit my childhood hard in a really satisfying way. Too bad the mechs are destroyed in the second big action scene and never used again in the whole movie.

I could talk about the individual group members, but there’s really nothing to discuss. Abbi Jacobson plays the resident girl of the group, showing an awareness from the filmmakers that female empowerment is a positive thing, but without the slightest understanding of what made Wyldstyle or Lego Batman’s Barbara Gordon such solid characters. We’ve also got Zach Woods as a robot whom everybody treats as an ordinary kid, no matter how blindingly obvious it is that he’s actually a robot. I hope you consider that to be funny, because the filmmakers obviously thought it was the peak of hilarity for how hard they push that one joke.

The roster is rounded out by Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, and Michael Pena, all of whom play characters not even remotely worth discussing. We’ve also got Jackie Chan (again) sleepwalking through a paycheck as the group’s mentor. The only other character you really need to know about is Lloyd (Dave Franco), the team’s field leader.

Lloyd is Garmadon’s son. That is seriously all you need to know about him. That’s pretty much all we’re ever told about him. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single line of dialogue either from, to, or about Lloyd somehow comes back to his unfortunate parentage. Everybody hates him because he’s Garmadon’s son. He only feels alive when he’s the Green Ninja and nobody knows who he really is. He hates that Garmadon barely seems to know who he is. WE FUCKING GET IT.

Daddy issues are so cliche by now, and it wasn’t even welcome the first time it was done in a superhero movie. Hell, the “villain is my father” story point isn’t even a Star Wars parody so much as it’s a rut worn twenty feet deep into the floor. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from devoting so much time and dialogue to such an overdone concept, especially when they don’t do anything new or interesting with it. It’s annoying and obnoxious how the film tries to wring humor and heartfelt moments out of this like nobody’s ever even thought of the concept before. Shit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did this way more effectively and with far more intelligence, and that was just eight months ago!

Oh, and lest we forget, this is a story about magical ninjas fighting evil with giant mechs. In a world where literally anything can be made out of anything. So why in the big blue fuck are we spending the whole movie on daddy issues?!

Really, the whole world of the film is pathetically built. It’s not just that the characters are reduced to one joke each (that really wasn’t funny to begin with), and it’s not just that the basic theme of creativity is barely addressed, or that we have two wildly different storytellers with no idea of what their dynamic is like, but those are all factors. But more than that, it all feels like the filmmakers just threw together pop songs and talking sharks and butt jokes and whatever else came to mind. It’s jarring and incoherent and so… random.

To be clear, this isn’t like how the other movies were random. The previous two movies felt like anything and everything could be strategically pulled together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Every reference felt perfectly and deliberately timed to make the biggest possible story impact and get the biggest possible laugh. Here, it just feels like whatever was thrown together for no reason at all. What’s more, while the movies always had a childlike sense of humor, they never got to be so juvenile as the jokes here. The other movies had some pretty outlandish plot turns, but none of them were so heavily dependent on the characters acting like total morons.

Put more simply, the other movies had a clear intelligence that this one clearly does not.

Even the animation is below the usual standard. Granted, a lot of that has to do with how Legos barely factor into this Lego movie, and seriously, how screwed up is that? We don’t get nearly as many huge Lego creations and sets, and too much of the animation is just made of speed lines. Such a disappointment.

With The Lego Ninjago Movie, this franchise has become a lazy cash-grab imitation of itself. The character development, the comedy, and the heartfelt dramatic moments all completely fail because this movie is so proudly and inescapably stupid. It’s so loud and obnoxious, so incoherent and void of creativity, that it could only have been the product of six writers — six writers! — with another three getting story credit. Even the action scenes don’t provide much of any respite, since they’re shoved aside in favor of repeating the same jokes a million times and forcing more daddy issues down our collective throats.

There is absolutely no reason to see this movie, especially when we’ve got the previous two on DVD. Definitely not recommended.

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