On the mechanics of heroes and villains, Internet humor, and LEGO Ninjago's conspicuous indifference to its genre canvas
The LEGO Ninjago Movie Warner Bros.
Director: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan
Screenplay: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern and John Whittington
Starring: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn, Michael Peña and Jackie Chan
Rated PG / 1 hour, 41 minutes / 2.35:1
September 22, 2017
(out of four)
Despite his cheerful assertions to the contrary, one of the teenage ninja characters in The LEGO Ninjago Movie is, in fact, a robot. And one of the advantages of being a robot is the virtually unlimited capacity for data storage that you carry inside yourself at all times. This kind of information comes in handy when "just a regular teenage boy" Zane (voiced perfectly by Silicon Valley's Zach Woods) and his gang of secret masked crimefighting pals need some quick assistance in taking down a kung-fu master. All Zane - or Ice Ninja, to his confidantes - has to do is access the entire history of kung-fu movies and quickly download it, like Neo in The Matrix, and voila.
Would that the architects of this movie knew kung-fu movies so well.
It's a curious thing, that the existence of something like LEGO Ninjago would be so obviously modeled on established genre conventions, yet its makers would prove so incapable of doing anything with them. As if oblivious. There's so much material to play with, yet the film's three directors and six screenwriters offer only the most cursory of allusions to its own genre and genre history. In theory, they had access to the same cinematic database as Zane, but Ninjago doesn't come across as a martial-arts farce or homage, but as an aimless comedy that just happens to have characters dressed up as ninjas. Casting Jackie Chan as a sensei is as literate as the filmmakers get. You could take 98 percent of this script and, with a simple costume change, it would be a different genre altogether; it wears martial arts as an affectation, but it never feels confident in why it is what it is.
Then again: I realize this is more directly based on an already existing cartoon and toy series, complete with many of the characters we see pop up in the movie. Then again again: So?
Whether the film has any obligation to be emblematic of its stylistic forebears - or faithful to its ... fine, we can call it "source material" - the bottom line is this is a scattershot effort that achieves neither the anarchic comic spirit of its more focused LEGO predecessors nor the adventurousness that would allow the story to work on its own terms. It utilizes master/disciple relationships, familial rivalries, cryptic life lessons and ancient prophecies only as matters of structure; they are signposts, letting us know what kind of story we're in and where we're inexorably headed. But as plucky heroes doing battle with their estranged tyrannical fathers go, this pairing could easily be swapped into a different setting and it would make no difference.
The evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) is a ninja who dresses all in black, the extended torso required for his four arms making him look a leaner, less crazy Steven Seagal. The son he long ago abandoned - Lloyd (pronounced with two Ls, as if to reinforce how much of a loser he is) - wants very much to reconnect with him, but the only way he can get close to him is by fighting him every time he tries to invade the city. He does so anonymously, donning the Green Ninja alter ego along with the silver Water Ninja (Broad City's Abbi Jacobson), the blue Lightning Ninja (Kumail Nanjiani), the red Fire Ninja (Michael Peña), the black Earth Ninja (Fred Armisen) and the aforementioned Ice Ninja. Every few weeks this happens; the high school goes on lockdown as if there's a fire drill, the six secret ninjas all get simultaneously excused from class, they change into their secret identities, and go thwart Garmadon's latest takeover attempt.
That specific hero/villain dynamic in Ninjago - bad guy constantly comes up with grand plans to take over the city; good guy defeats him literally every time, rinse/repeat - has conspicuous echoes of February's The LEGO Batman Movie. Though the two production timelines overlapped and one probably didn't have too much direct influence on the other (if any), that resemblance underscores one of the failures at the heart of the movie. In LEGO Batman, the fact that the Joker always came up with grand schemes to take over Gotham and that Batman always - no matter what - thwarted those plans, only for the two to keep repeating the cycle, was the joke. It satirized the very structure of serialized superhero narratives, in which the same bad guys keep coming back and the good guy always defeats them. You could extend that logic to movie villains in general, I suppose, and that's what Ninjago ostensibly tries to do ... but the purpose just isn't there. Garmadon and his plans of domination and power may be a grand absurdity, but for no good reason. Just because. The relationship between superhero and supervillain was of central importance in LEGO Batman - as a target of parody as much as anything. The relationship between superninja and supervillain in LEGO Ninjago has a purpose (reconciliation of their father/son issues), just not one that has any significance beyond that.
The movie as a whole has a similar lack of focus, and only fleeting purpose. This is the first of the series of LEGO-animated movies to fall flat - and its vague relationship to its own supposed genre is largely to blame. The deep-seated understanding of the mechanics of comic-book storytelling informed everything in LEGO Batman - in the same way the deep-seated understanding of pop-culture formulas and Hero's Journeys informed Lord/Miller's original The LEGO Movie in 2014. LEGO Ninjago - helmed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan - has elements of both movies running through it. It, too, is a Hero's Journey (although it winds up being too earnest for its own good). And it, too, is a pop-culture joke factory - just an aimless one. There are still plenty of jokes that land. The movie's not a slog, just an erratic frustration, unable to follow through on its absurdity nor take advantage of its archetypes.
I suppose the argument against going too inside-baseball with its martial-arts aesthetic is that kids - having, for the most part, not been raised on Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or the Shaw Brothers - wouldn't get the jokes. But I'm not sure how much that did, or should, play into the filmmakers' thinking. After all, Ninjago includes a joke about Locke - the Tom Hardy/Steven Knight joint - and I'm pretty sure kids didn't see that movie, either. And even with a property as recognizable to kids as Batman, I guarantee you those kids didn't catch half the references in LEGO Batman. Accomplishing both - being a sophisticated, even arcane comedy and appealing to kids - is always possible.
The film's biggest joke follows the established meta rules of the first LEGO Movie, in which all of these stories are taking place within the real world, with real LEGO pieces being brought to life by the imagination of the children and adults building the sets and telling the stories. It's an apt enough metaphor for the making of these very movies, but more importantly - at least in the first movie - the imagined story reflected the experience of the kid telling it, with Will Ferrell appearing as both the voice of the evil villain and in the flesh as the preoccupied father he represented. There's no such cohesion this time around - here, it's just a kid wandering into an old shop (think Gremlins) and being told a story by Jackie Chan (in which he casts himself as Master Wu, the ninja team's wise leader) that all adds up to an easy platitude. The big twist here is that the story's big bad is not Garmadon himself, but an adorable cat, who's conjured into existence by the "ultimate weapon" (a laser pointer) in a joke that seems like a desperate attempt to gain the approval of the entire Internet.
All of these movies have been based around pop-culture brands and properties - but this is the first in which LEGO itself seems like the only brand that matters. Perhaps if the movie were as eager to dive into its own built-in ideas as it is to appeal to fans of Tumblr memes, LEGO Ninjago would have been better able to justify itself.