In 2011, Lego introduced a new line of sets called Ninjago, a pseudo-relaunch of their discontinued Ninja line from 1998-2000. That same year, two pilot episodes of the television series titled Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu premiered on Cartoon Network, which is about to enter its eighth season. The only connection between the television series and The Lego Ninjago Movie is that both were developed by Dan and Kevin Hageman, who co-wrote The Lego Movie alongside Phil Lord and Chris Miller. In this film, the battle for NINJAGO City calls to action young Master Builder Lloyd, aka the Green Ninja, along with his friends, also secret ninja warriors. Led by Master Wu, as wise-cracking as he is wise, they must defeat the evil warlord Garmadon, who also happens to be Lloyd’s dad. Pitting father against son, the epic showdown tests these fierce but undisciplined modern-day ninjas as they learn to check their egos and pull together to unleash the inner power of Spinjitzu.
It’d be a total cliché for me to open the review by admitting that this movie isn’t as good as the original Lego Movie, but that doesn’t make it any less true. That being said, taken on its own merits, this is still a very well made, fun and exciting film from what is quietly becoming one of the better major animation studios.
First off, we have to talk about how stacked this cast is. Dave Franco stars as Lloyd Garmadon, the Green Ninja, who just so happens to be the son of the evil Lord Garmadon, played brilliantly by Justin Theroux. Most often when recording dialogue for animated films, the cast does not get the chance to directly interact with each other. Because of this, I’m even more impressed when they share such wonderful chemistry. The relationship between Lloyd and his father was arguably the strongest emotionally, but following not too far behind are the relationships between him and his uncle Master Wu, played by Jackie Chan, and the rest of the Secret Ninja Force: Michael Peña as Kai, Kumail Nanjiani as Jay, Abbi Jacobson as Nya, Zach Woods as Zane, and Fred Armisen as Cole.
I want to talk a little more in depth about character development, because that’s always been my favorite part of all the Lego movies. While it’s true that these films all have some top notch animation that drives both the surprisingly well choreographed action and the spitfire comedy, it would all just be visual noise if there weren’t a handful of memorable and endearing characters to latch onto. I liked the team dynamic, seemingly paying homage to a number of influences, including shows like Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as various other superhero, kung fu/ninja and tokusatsu tropes. However, much like Disney’s Big Hero 6, the rest of the team act more like supporting players, while Lloyd and his father have the lion’s share of the screen time. For better or for worse, family has been a consistent underlying theme across the entire Lego cinematic universe, and it comes with a whole bag of messages that are universally accessible.
As far as the world building is concerned, I absolutely adored it. Just to be clear, in case there is any confusion, this film is not a continuation of the Lego Ninjago TV series. Even though both feature the same characters, these two adaptations are quite different. I think it’s a good thing to keep the movie and the series separate, because seven seasons of what I can only imagine is a pretty dense continuity seems like a lot for new audiences to take in. Setting the film within the Lego Cinematic Universe not only lets the mythology and the characters breathe, but it also opens up a number of comedic possibilities for real world elements, including who the TRUE antagonist turns out to be. I’d love to see this movie earn itself a sequel, or at the very least, have certain elements carried over onto future seasons of the TV series.
When it comes to the negatives, being a part of a cinematic universe unfortunately warrants comparisons to the films that came before. Even though this movie shares a similar style of humor to that of Lord and Miller (who are credited as producers), it’s obvious that Charlie Bean, Bob Logan and Paul Fisher are beginners. Even though they’re all animation veterans, having spent over twenty years in the animation and art departments of various shows such as Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Samurai Jack, they don’t have nearly as much experience writing and directing a feature film. That’s how you end up with a handful of clunky lines of dialogue and story beats lifted almost directly from The Lego Movie. For example, two of the worst scenes in the film are the live action bookends to the story proper. I understand what they they were trying to do on paper, but it was executed in a way that came off a little too cheesy for my taste.
Finally, the music composed by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh was incredible. Family films seem to be his specialty, plus he happens to have a great working relationship with Lord and Miller, so it makes sense that he would return to the Lego Cinematic Universe. The soundtrack of course has some pretty fun song choices, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden,” and updated rendition of “It’s The Hard-Knock Life” from the musical Annie, and there’s a nice father-son bonding montage set to the tune of Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name.”
Overall, while it may be a slight step down from what’s come before, The Lego Ninjago Movie was still an absolute blast. The characters were all likable, the animation continues to be amazing, and the world they built was engaging enough to leave me wanting more. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for this Lego Cinematic Universe in the future, starting with The Lego Movie Sequel in 2019.