Looking back, it almost seems silly to think that The LEGO Movie faced an uphill battle when it premiered back in 2014. Initially greeted with cynicism by many moviegoers, the film proved itself as an earnest and entertaining property and doubled down on its strengths with The LEGO Batman Movie earlier this year. Now, Charlie Bean's The LEGO Ninjago Movie is Hollywood's third foray into the realm of animated LEGOs, and while the ninja-centric spinoff is heavy on laughs, fun, and adventure, it also feels like the world of LEGO has inched ever so slightly closer to that "rushed cash grab" status that we feared in 2014.
In this LEGO adventure, we find ourselves dropped into Ninjago -- a Japan-esque land protected from evil by a secret clan of ninjas named Zane (Zach Woods), Cole (Fred Armisen), Kai (Michael Pena), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani) and Lloyd (Dave Franco). What evil do they fight, you ask? Well, day in and day out, our brave ninjas (with the help of Jackie Chan's Sensei Wu) battle the dreaded Garmadon (Justin Theroux) as he tries to conquer Ninjago with a nautical-themed army. He's basically Black Manta crossed with Darth Vader. Though adored by the public, Lloyd must contend with the fact that the supervillain that he constantly battles is actually his father -- as well as the hatred that he receives from the public as a result. However, when Lloyd accidentally unleashes a powerful (and utterly adorable) beast called Meowthra on Ninjago, he must learn to bridge the gap with his father so that he can save his home and everyone in it. Along the way, he learns more than a few lessons about himself and discovers aspects of his character that he never could've imagined.
In a year that has seen an actual Power Rangers movie debut in theaters, The LEGO Ninjago Movie somehow manages to capture the fun of being a teenage superhero with your friends even better than the Saban revival. The jokes come hard and fast in Ninjago, with a heavy emphasis on a parody of classic kung-fu movies and Japanese kaiju films. Whether it is a machine gun that fires crabs (which eventually makes for a fantastic Top Gun reference) or a laser pointer as the "Ultimate Weapon," there's an undercurrent of slapstick silliness that permeates every inch of this ninja-themed land. The film seldom takes any time to slow down (sometimes to a fault), which allows the story to move through its beats quickly and efficiently -- albeit in a relatively straightforward and predictable direction when all is said and done.
That sense of fun and lightness has also been applied to The LEGO Ninjago Movie's visuals, which have received a relatively substantial overhaul this time. In this particular LEGO film, elements like water, fire, and smoke are all real (as opposed to LEGO bricks, such as in The LEGO Movie), which gives the film a far more organic aesthetic. Moreover, the film pays clear homage to classic kung-fu movies with its strong fight choreography (Jackie Chan reportedly played a prominent role in developing the fights) and cool, anime-inspired action sequences. As a result, the visuals are incredibly robust and impressive -- although it's worth mentioning that the lack of emphasis on the bricks themselves arguably defeats the whole purpose of telling these stories with LEGO bricks in the first place.
That said, the light tone and fun atmosphere fall short by comparison to projects like The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie because there's less meat on The LEGO Ninjago Movie's bones. It does not pack the emotional punch of the original film, and it does not play with genre conventions in the way LEGO Batman did. Ninjago's story doesn't feel nearly as ironic as anything that we have seen from this universe before, and as a result, it does not feel nearly biting or subversive.
As far as performances go, Justin Theroux represents the clear standout of the cast, as he apparently took full advantage of his opportunities to improvise in the recording booth. Garmadon is a maniacal scene-stealer in almost every single one of his scenes, and his manic energy helps give the film much of its comedic momentum. If a story truly is only as good as its villain, then The LEGO Ninjago Movie definitely works best when it gives Theroux (and by extension, Garmadon) room to run wild.
However, beyond Theroux, few characters stand out as clear favorites. Zach Woods' performance as robot teenager Zane is funny enough, but most of the rest of the cast members simply use their own voices to portray the characters. There's no cartoonish Good Cop/Bad Cop, Metal Beard, or Batman here; just an entertaining ensemble of well-known comedians and actors. The performances are not bad, per se; the film just puts all of its eggs in the Garmadon basket and relegates most of the other performers to secondary roles. Like many other aspects of the movie, they're just not that memorable compared to what this universe has given us before.
From start to finish, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a wild ride that more or less sustains its jokes and keeps the energy flowing. It is another enjoyable entry in the overarching LEGO franchise, but the delightfully sharp spark that made the first two LEGO films so great isn't quite there. You will certainly laugh and cheer with The LEGO Ninjago Movie, but it won't invoke that sense of warm nostalgia that made the other two LEGO films instant classics. The LEGO machine is still going strong, but where the franchise decides to go (or not go) from here is now of the utmost importance.