Director: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
Cast: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Michael Peña, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Jackie Chan
Watch The LEGO Ninjago Movie online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV Store / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The second of 2017’s two LEGO movies takes its lead from a line of the Danish company’s own toys, rather from the cultural cache of Batman. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a pastiche of martial arts movies that centres around a secret force of ninjas, trained by Master Wu (voiced by Jackie Chan), who fight in giant LEGO mechs to stop an evil warlord called Garmadon (Justin Theroux) from destroying the city of Ninjago.
Unbeknownst to Garmadon, the ninjas are led by his own estranged son, Lloyd (Dave Franco), or “Luh-loyd” as he pronounces it. Although Wu counsels him against acting on his anger at his dad, Lloyd steals and uses an Ultimate Weapon that throws the whole city into turmoil. Trying to make up for his mistake, Lloyd attempts to build a connection with Garmadon, while leading his team on a dangerous mission of rediscovery.
The Ninjago toys have already spun off into eight seasons of an animated TV show called Masters Of Spinjitzu, but this film is a soft, entry-level reboot that doesn’t require prior knowledge of the series, even though it uses the same characters. It is to the series as In The Loop is to The Thick Of It, but with more plastic characters and far less swearing.
First and foremost, it’s a family movie that can’t help but cross over into Kung Fu Panda, and the same Hero’s Journey territory that The LEGO Movie so comprehensively skewered back in 2014. Measured alongside the also superior LEGO Batman Movie, there’s definitely a trend of diminishing returns in the LEGO series to date, but that’s not to say that this isn’t still an enjoyable adventure, even if it’s so busy as to feel indistinct.
A solid cast of comedy actors lend their voices to the supporting characters, including Michael Peña, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods and Fred Armisen, but the film loses them in the cacophony of kung fu movie references, colourful action and fitfully funny comic set pieces. There’s lots of fun stuff in here that needs more time, because in such short, frantic bursts, it never really leaves an impression.
Conversely, it’s the moderately experimental stuff behind the scenes that really pays off, such as having Chan choreograph all of the fight scenes in live action before they were animated. Likewise, the chemistry between Lloyd and Garmadon is both the funniest and most worthwhile aspect of the film, perhaps because they took the unusual step of having Franco and Theroux record their lines together, rather than separately, and there’s a sense of timing that livens up their scenes and the movie around them.
Simply put, The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s weakness is that it’s the first film in LEGO’s series that just feels like a movie about toys. The irresistible sense of anarchic playtime logic is still here, but it’s slightly dulled by the breathless, incoherent delivery. Jackie Chan’s involvement, as a voice artist, choreographer and more, elevates this quite a bit, but unlike its predecessors, the Ninjago film is only as memorable as a toy advert. That said, the hilarious function of the Ultimate Weapon is a stroke of genius and almost worth building the whole film around all by itself.