Cast: (voiced by) Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods, Jackie Chan
Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
Writers: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, Whilliam Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington
This film marks the third instalment in the LEGO Cinematic Universe, and it is the first time that one of them left me feeling underwhelmed. The pieces are all there, they just never quite click together the way they did the first two times. Maybe this was bound to happen sooner or later. It is near impossible for a franchise to knock it out of the park each and every time and this one already had two home runs going for it. The astounding surprise of the smart, funny, endlessly entertaining hit that was The LEGO Movie is something that can never really be replicated and, after The LEGO Batman Movie proved to be just as enjoyable, the standard was high. The LEGO Ninjago Movie has more of the same charm, humour and imagination, but with less steam.
This time we are taken to the city of Ninjago, a metropolis that gets frequently attacked by the evil Lord Garmadon. Here lives his son Lloyd (or L-Loyd as his father calls him) with his mother Koko. Lloyd is hated by the city at large for being the son of Garmadon, but what they do not know is that he is a member of the secret ninja force that protects the city along with his friends Nya, Zane, Jay, Cole and Kai. All six were trained in the martial arts by Master Wu, Garmadon’s brother, and together they foil each of Garmadon’s attempts to take over the city. Master Wu however warns his pupils that they will never be real ninjas if they continue to rely on weapons and machines and tells them that they should learn to master their minds and tap into the elements that define them (which, in Lloyd’s case, is the element Green). He also mentions an Ultimate Weapon that must never be used under any circumstances. Lloyd uses the Ultimate Weapon in an attempt to stop his father’s latest invasion and ends up dooming the city. Thus Lloyd, Master Wu, and the other ninjas must embark on a quest to find the Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon.
Although there are enough good things to make this film watchable, they just aren’t abundant enough to put it on par with its two predecessors. This movie doesn’t have the same rhythm or inventiveness that made the others such a blast to watch. There are some very good jokes that hit with me, for example the reveal of Meowthra the Ultimate Weapon, Garmadon’s tendency to fire his incompetent generals (out of a volcano) and Jackie Chan’s delivery of “Green”, but there were just as many that fell flat. One of the reasons the other two movies were so much fun is because they bombarded the viewer with joke after joke after joke all the way through, and this film lacks that same energy. Similarly there are enough creative visuals to keep your eye occupied, like with the ninja’s Zords (I‘m sure there’s another name for them, but they’re Zords), but again the film doesn’t go the extra mile with these visuals the way the others did.
I think this can all be credited to a lack of personality. Too much of this film feels too familiar and by-the-numbers. The ultimate conflict for instance concerns Lloyd’s daddy issues and feelings of alienation and abandonment and from Garmadon’s struggle to be a father to Lloyd. This is a trope that we can trace back to Luke and Darth Vader and further still and it has been done to death. There aren’t enough twists to make it feel any fresher and the characters are not interesting enough to sell it or entertaining enough to carry it. Compared to the first film’s conflict between control and freedom and LEGO Batman’s struggle to open himself up to others, this one feels woefully hollow and derivative. The film plays it frustratingly safe, never taking any chances or risks, and is never able to build enough of an identity to really distinguish itself from what we’ve seen before. I left this film feeling absolutely no connection to Ninjago or any of the characters who live there the way that I did with the other ones.
The film’s not bad enough for me to say that I disliked it, but with the standard set by this franchise there was a definite feeling of unfulfillment when it was all over. The cast is pretty good, with Chan in particular getting some laughs in both his animated and live-action roles, but there’s only so much any of them could have done with these underdeveloped characters. Nanjiani, Armisen and Peña, for instance, are all very funny actors but if you put a gun to my head I could not tell you which played which character, so interchangeable were they. Overall this film does not have enough going for it to make watching it worthwhile. Maybe it’s unfair to rate a film like this so lowly when it isn’t particularly bad in it’s own right, but I’d argue that when a standard has been set, falling short of that standard should be regarded as a failure. A similar example would be something like The Godfather: Part III, not a terrible film in its own right but pitiful when compared to what came before.