‘LEGO Ninjago’ departs from franchise success

Photo courtesy of Warner Animation Group

The LEGO Movie franchise is an odd beast. Many pegged it to fail with “The LEGO Movie,” and others claimed that “The LEGO  Batman Movie” would surely bomb. After all, how could a movie series based on a toy be any more than a soulless cash grab?

Despite the pundits, both movies were wildly successful. “The LEGO Movie” is still one of the most original, imaginative and entertaining animated features to be produced in the last seven years, and “The LEGO Batman Movie,” released earlier this year, garnered praise as well.

The surprising success of the franchise lies in energetic, humorous animation that offers regular sight gags, poignant themes, wonderfully meta humor and a charmingly childish willingness to pursue any joke no matter how silly. In addition to appealing to the children in audiences, the LEGO movies seek to appeal to the dormant child in many adult viewers as well.

In some respects, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” is no different. This debut feature by directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan stars Dave Franco (“Neighbors”) as Lloyd Garmadon, the estranged teenage son of Lord Garmadon, a supervillain who regularly terrorizes the island city of Ninjago.

Lloyd struggles to fit in with the townspeople of Ninjago due to his lineage, but he finds purpose in fighting his father as a member of the secret ninja force. The secret ninja force echoes the Power Rangers, comprising of Lloyd as the Green Ninja and five other teens who all fight evil under the tutelage of Sensei Wu, played by Jackie Chan (“The Karate Kid”).

The film opens with the ninjas failing to stop Lord Garmadon, voiced enthusiastically by Justin Theroux (“The Leftovers”), from conquering Ninjago. In a desperate attempt to rid the city of his father, Lloyd uses a laser pointer to summon a live-action cat that completely destroys Ninjago.

The remainder of the film follows the ninja force and Lord Garmadon as they join forces to end the cat’s reign of terror. Along the way, the sextet learns about the importance of perspective, their own individuality and family as Lloyd and Garmadon attempt to repair their relationship.

While there is much to appreciate in this film, it is not quite as funny as the previous installments in the LEGO Movie franchise despite having similar humor. In a visually exciting style, the film manages to ridiculously subvert genre tropes in the same way that other LEGO Movies have.

It is truly wonderful to watch as six LEGO ninjas in six LEGO robotic beasts are slowly shot out of the sky by a meandering, innocuous live action cat to the screams of little LEGO people below. Tongue-in-cheek scenes like these that play on tropes like the “somber last stand” and the “grave apocalypse” are immensely fun to watch.

Sometimes it feels as if the screenwriters pursued jokes with childish glee, unrestrained by public perception to approach the truly absurd. Certain live-action cut scenes interspersed throughout the film are so extraordinarily silly that one cannot help but grin. While some jokes are too on-the-nose to work, the film is still consistently fun.

Unfortunately, the humor and visuals are the only strong point of the film. The plot meanders, adopting the guises of a Kung Fu satire, a coming-of-age film, a family drama, an epic, a disaster movie and many more. The film has its own identity crisis and never settles on which genre it wants to imitate.

Due to this uncertainty, the pacing is uneven and inconsistent. Further, the film is bookended by two cringeworthy live-action scenes that depict Jackie Chan as an aged trinket shop owner narrating the film’s events to a wide-eyed young boy. These scenes add little to the film and only obfuscate the film’s tone.

The only characters developed well are Lloyd and his father, but Lloyd’s character is too bland and plain to hold the audience’s attention. Dave Franco’s Lloyd regularly rattles off some tired lines about not fitting in and hating his father, but it ultimately amounts to little substance.

Theroux’s Garmadon, however, is an absolute joy to watch. Fickle, immature and completely oblivious to the impact his actions have on his son, Garmadon is a constant source of comedic relief and provides a clever subversion of the absentee father trope in many heroes’ journeys. Theroux’s performance ties together the disparate strands of the plot and camouflages many of the gaping holes in the narrative.

Unfortunately, none of the other characters, played by such renowned actors as Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”), Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”), are given much space to breathe in the plot.

All of these faults would be forgivable if the film had something original to say. Unfortunately, the film tries to unify itself thematically around some truly dry and trite monologues by Lloyd and Garmadon about the importance of family and staying true
to oneself.

Where the past two LEGO Movies succeeded through their originality, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” does not even try to reach the same bar. The disappointing finale reinforces how forgettable the film as a whole is.

While there are many individual scenes that are entertaining, the film overall simply fails to distinguish itself from the bulk of cliche, moralizing animated films that are produced every year.

As a kids film, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” may pass as acceptable. However, this installment of the franchise does not live up to the precedent set by the first two LEGO movies. Future LEGO movies, planned to be released in 2018 and 2019, may extend the weakened franchise.