The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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.

★★

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Ghost in the Shell

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi

Director: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger


When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.

Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.

The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.

The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.

The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.

★★