Is the third Lego-based feature film a continuation of the series’ surprisingly fun style of animation, or is it just an attempt to sell more toys?
It's one thing to base a movie on a book, play, or comic book. It’s another thing to base a movie on a toy. Toys don’t always have plots, traditional characters, or themes from which inspiration can be drawn. Toys are objects, and to bring them to life on the big screen successfully requires arguably more creativity and effort than simply adapting a story from another source of media. Furthermore, the filmmakers have to be able to ease the audience’s concerns that there is a logical reason for the toy-based film to exist besides acting like an expensive commercial to drum up more toy sales.
In the case of the original Lego Movie, the filmmakers were able to accomplish both of those goals. They were able to make a film that was just as fun to watch as it would be for a kid to play with the toy on which it was based. The Lego Movie achieved this because it found a compelling reason to bring the famous toy into theaters - by evoking the imagination and creativity that the toy invites. Visually, the film was animated in a way that looked and felt like it was physically made out of legos. Thematically, it had an upbeat attitude which focused on the importance of individuality, similar to the customizable approach that can be used to approach the toy. Throw in a heaping helpful of universal light-hearted humor, and enough nostalgia to captivate even the oldest audience members, and the Lego Movie was a hit.
The Lego Ninjago Movie is a different story. It’s the third Lego-based movie, and it utilizes the approach of the first film, but to a completely different setting. Where Lego Batman as a character effectively stole the show in the original film, his standalone movie felt like it needed to be made. Ninjago doesn’t have any connection to the original Lego Movie besides being based on the same type of toy. It has the same type of animation, and exhibits some of the same type of humor, but there is something missing. In a sense, it feels like it is riding on the success of the first two films to prolong the franchise, rather than put in the effort to create something truly unique and special that can stand on its own.
The film focuses on a teenager named Lloyd who lives in Ninjago City. Lloyd is a member of a secret team of ninjas who pilot giant mechs to protect the city from the evil Garmadon. Garmadon happens to also be Lloyd’s father, for which he received much ridicule from the citizens he (secretly) works so hard to protect. Lloyd’s relationship with his father is basically non-existent too, which weighs on him heavily. When Garmadon succeeds in taking over the city, Lloyd’s frustration with his father ruining his life causes him to trigger “the ultimate weapon” which causes more damage than he intended. The film predictably comes full circle when Lloyd ends up having to work with his evil father to try and fix the damage both of them have caused.
The predictability is not really a bad thing when you consider that the film IS intended for kids after all. However, compared with what the franchise has done in the previous installments, the lack of originality is a major let down. The Lego Movie took its block-based premise in stride, at times using its limitations as a source of humor. Lego Batman Movie was successful as a satirical look at the superhero film craze. Ninjago is just a generic kids movie brought to life via Lego animation.
The film has a premise that conjures up both traditional martial arts and Japanese Kaiju films, but doesn’t do anything exciting or fun with those nods. The writers choose to use familiar tropes from those films, which suggests that they thought the audience would find enjoyment in simply seeing them recreated out of Legos. That is not the case. Instead it comes off as lazy, and frankly the film is not nearly as exciting as it could be because of this. There is some self-referential humor to try and make these moments seem less plain, but the film just isn’t clever enough to pull it off. In the previous installments, the writers were able to find enough interesting wrinkles and quirky situations to provide the audience a new perspective when approaching familiar territories.
Visually, the film also suffers from a lack of creativity. You would think that the references to Asian culture and pop culture would provide an inspiration of intricate, colorful, and neat Lego-building opportunities. Unfortunately, Ninjago City doesn’t really feel all that different from the settings in the previous Lego films. The production overall is still focused on making the film feel like actual Lego toys coming to life, but there is an introduction of non-Lego animated elements too. At one point the characters leave Ninjago City, and here the setting changes to a place that is not constructed of Lego bricks. Similarly, the characters have additional animations in their faces and points of articulation in their limbs that are not possible in real life plastic form. Although these changes in animation style are limited, they still feel like they take something away from the franchise's’ uniqueness.
The Lego Ninjago Movie has a runtime of 101 minutes, but frankly half of that feels like filler material. So much of the dialogue is repetitive, dull, and dumb that that the film really starts to drag in places. It lacks a central source of inspiration and direction. Proof of this can be seen in the ways that the film abruptly changes direction in regards to several aspects. Giant mechs are neat as Lego creations, for example, but they are abandoned halfway through for a more traditional “hero's journey” yarn as the battles are boringly one-sided. The film isn’t really able to do much with these robots, which is a real shame when you consider some of the crazy contraptions we saw in the previous films.
Likewise, the message of the film is inconsistent and redundant. It starts off with a live-action sequence where Jackie Chan’s real-world doppelganger begins telling a story to a child who gets picked on by his peers. We see similarity in how Lloyd is ridiculed because of his father, and expect a story to teach us about inclusiveness. But once Garmadon takes over Ninjago city, Lloyd’s daddy issues come to the forefront and the resolution of these issues becomes the primary motive of the story. On top of this is also an attempt to address themes of self identity and true potential. From a lesson-teaching perspective, it’s all too much. Melodrama ensues and the series’ comedic tone is squandered.
Overall, Ninjago is just passable as a kids movie, and that’s it. It has some funny moments, Jackie Chan is charming even in Lego form, and there’s always the excitement of a beloved toy being brought to life. However, the previous Lego movies were able to transcend their “kids movie” stigmas to become something interesting for all ages. Those films were a lot of fun because they played off of pop culture traditions instead of following them. Besides showcasing what it would be like for Legos to come alive, The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t have a unique enough premise or clever hook to set it apart. In turn, this begins to cast some doubt on the longevity of the franchise. How long can it survive by riffing off of the same note? Unlike toys, movies can’t be mass produced.