Before delving into the merits of “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” it’s worth pausing to reflect on just how remarkable it is that the third film in a cinematic franchise based on plastic children’s construction toys comes with high expectations attached. Before Lego launched its own film empire, other toy companies like Hasbro had established assembly lines of often profitable, invariably awful branded theatrical entertainments, and there was no reason to expect anything different from Lego. Yet 2014’s “The Lego Movie” and last spring’s “The Lego Batman Movie” surprised just about everyone by being smart, sophisticated, cognizant of their own synergistic origins, and most importantly, actual movies. That the Lego Cinematic Universe (LCU) became a recognizable acronym isn’t surprising; that it came to signify quality is almost miraculous.
Superficially, “Ninjago” is very much in line with its predecessors. Based on Lego’s ninja-themed original property – already a Cartoon Network TV show – the film is a hyperkinetic assault of eye-catching faux stop-motion animation; packed with clever, self-aware, and sometimes boldly absurdist humor; and all anchored by a father-son conflict that the film takes more seriously than is strictly necessary. Yet for the first time, the franchise’s house-style is beginning to show signs of wear. Whereas “The Lego Movie” and “Lego Batman” seemed to come by their cheeky irreverence naturally, the sketchier “Ninjago” sometimes strains to keep up the pace, with its anarchic sensibility now having the air of a mandate – and few tones are harder to maintain than “mandatory irreverence.” Still plenty entertaining and occasionally very funny, “Ninjago” nonetheless displays symptoms of diminishing returns, and Lego might want to shuffle its pieces a bit before building yet another film with this same model.
“Ninjago” takes place in the vaguely Japanese city of Ninjago, located on Ninjago Island, where residents wake up each morning watching “Good Morning Ninjago” with Lego Michael Strahan and Lego Robin Roberts. They’re never at a loss for news stories: Ninjago is attacked roughly once a day by the four-armed megalomaniac Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of henchmen, who live in a conveniently located active volcano just off the island’s shores. And, roughly once a day, they’re repelled by a sextet of masked teenage ninjas who do battle in elaborate mechanical warcraft.
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A tongue-in-cheek mashup of “Power Rangers,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Captain Planet,” these ninjas are coached by gnomic sensei Master Wu (Jackie Chan, also glimpsed in live-action bookend segments) and each have color-codings and martial styles rooted in various elements: We have red fire ninja Kai (Michael Pena), black earth ninja Cole (Fred Armisen), grey water ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson), blue lightning ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani) and white ice ninja Zane (Zach Woods), an android whose character seems modeled entirely on the Steve Buscemi “how do you do, fellow kids” meme. Getting the short end of the stick here is the green ninja, Lloyd (Dave Franco), whose elemental power is…”green.” Even worse, though he attracts cheering crowds in his green ninja costume, the civilian Lloyd is best known for being Garmadon’s estranged son, and he has a hard time navigating high school when he’s blamed for his father’s rampages.
Lloyd’s Oedipal angst hits a peak when Garmadon butt-dials him on his 16th birthday, vaguely surprised to learn that his son is no longer an infant. Lloyd channels his anger into fighting, but when Garmadon arrives equipped with an impenetrable power-suit, Lloyd steals Master Wu’s ultimate weapon – a laser pointer that attracts an enormous cat demon (played by an actual, non-Lego cat) who promptly begins destroying the city. To vanquish the kitty, the ninjas must go on a quest to retrieve the ultimate-ultimate weapon, and end up capturing Garmadon along the way, allowing for some belated father-son bonding.
Like both previous Lego movies, “Ninjago” throws most of its comic energy into its first act, piling up so many incidental jokes, sight-gags and non sequiturs that absorbing them all is nearly impossible. (Among the better ones: the barely audible “cancel the victory cake” announcement over the volcano lair loudspeaker after Garmadon’s latest failure, and the fact that Armisen’s ninja is also a DJ for no particular reason.)
But the comedown into the film’s sparer, slower final two-thirds is particularly pronounced here, with a few too many repetitions of running gags, and a stacked voice cast largely squandered on supporting characters with the barest traces of personality. The pop-culture references begin to lose their luster as well, and by the time Master Wu starts playing Guns ‘n’ Roses on bamboo flute, the film veers dangerously close to early Dreamworks-style snark. Unsurprisingly for a film with three directors, six screenwriters, and an additional three “story by” credits, “Ninjago’s” overall narrative has been committee-thought down to a rather conventional template that couldn’t be more at odds with its freewheeling jokes.
“Ninjago” is beautifully animated, however, even if it’s a bit less comprehensively Lego-y than usual, with brickless water, fireballs and flora abounding. Among the Lego films’ greatest pleasures is the way one starts watching hyperaware of the obsessive detail put into the digital bricolage, only to gradually start believing in the world it creates. That’s no different here, and as long as the company proves more willing to give its storytellers leeway to shake up the formulas, there’s plenty of potential for invention and surprise left in this toy box.