New ninja-themed Lego movie follows formula for faithful fans
The Lego Ninjago Movie
Starring the voices of Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods and Jackie Chan
Directed by Charlie Bean with Paul Fisher and Bob Logan
In the opening live-action scene of this otherwise computer-animated movie, an adult shopkeeper asks a young boy—who’s wandered into his curio emporium—why he’s not playing outside with his friends.
It’s an odd question in a sequence serving to set up this third movie in the mega-franchise built on a toy brand that was always made for playing indoors—little interlocking plastic bricks and blocks, first introduced in 1949, that gradually took over the world, spilling out of the playroom and into pop culture, spawning a universe of toys, characters, models, games, books, magazines, TV shows and movies.
Maybe “playing outside” is a plug for one of the six Lego-themed amusement parks in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East.
A commercial plug in a Lego movie? A crazy thought, I know…
Anyway, The Lego Ninjago Movie is based on characters and storylines from a Cartoon Network TV series that’s been cranking since 2011. Maybe you already knew teenage Lego ninjas were a thing. Maybe you already knew they were fighting an evil warlord bent on destroying their island city. Maybe you already purchased Lego’s Ninjago City playset, a behemoth with nearly 5,000 pieces and 20 minifigures, that retails for a whopping $299.99.
Maybe you’re a parent who’s stepped, barefoot, maybe more than once, on some of your kids’ Lego blocks that didn’t get put away.
Lego Ninjago features the voices of Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña and Zach Woods as the teenage ninjas, and Justin Theroux as the evil warlord, Garmadon. New director Charlie Bean, who comes aboard from the Disney XD TV series Tron: Uprising, assisted by animator-directors Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, follows the Lego movie formula—established in The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017)—of quick, campy quips, whimsical pop-culture riffs and vibrant, colorful action.
The computer animation continues to be amazing, with intricately detailed wizardry that turns pixels into digital Lego blocks, characters, attire, accessories, buildings and other objects. Surface textures look like they have real gloss, nicks and scuffs. Lego faces indicate joy, exasperation, sadness, surprise and shock with minimalist movements of digitized eyes and mouths that flicker on the surfaces of little Lego heads. Ninjago is an entire teeming, sprawling city that resembles a plasticized Hong Kong. The ninjas operate “mechs,” intricate mechanical robots, and Garmadon’s contraptions rise from the sea or fill the skies.
The lead teen ninja, Lloyd (Franco), grapples with some weighty daddy issues: His father is the very evil warlord he and his buddies bust out of school to fend off every week. Lloyd’s dad abandoned him as an infant and never taught him how to do the things dads typically teach sons how to do, like throw a ball—even though Garmadon has two sets of arms.
Lloyd’s now-single mom (Olivia Munn) remembers the charismatic chieftain who once won her heart on the battlefield leading his skeleton army. Martial-arts icon Jackie Chan, appropriately enough, provides the voice of Master Wu, who schools the youngsters in the arts of becoming real ninjas who rely on their own inner powers instead of weaponized mechs.
There’s also a “monstrous” cat, an Ultimate Weapon and hilarious Lego cameos from Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts, who cohost a morning TV show called Good Morning Ninjago, giving chipper a.m. updates about Garmadon’s latest rampages.
“As you can see,” reports Strahan, “our city is in the midst of total annihilation.”
The movie’s high sense of hip, flip whimsy extends to its music. Mark Mothersbaugh, the co-founder and lead singer of the seminal ’80s new wave band Devo, adds to his voluminous soundtrack resume with a slate of original pieces scored to various scenes. Flautist Greg Patillo provides the real musicianship when Master Wu rocks familiar tune-age (including “Welcome to the Jungle” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life”) on his plastic flute.
“Dope fluting, Master Wu,” one of the ninjas compliments him.
A snippet from “The Power,” a hooky 1990 dance song from the German pop group Snap!, gets used a couple of times, and it’s a deliberate, Easter-egg-y Lego nod to The Perfect Weapon, a 1991 cult-classic chopsocky action flick—which used the song extensively—about a young fighter who learns how to refashion his body into a natural weapon with Kenpo Karate.
After two previous movies, the whole Lego shtick doesn’t feel quite as fresh, feisty and lively as it did three years ago. But it still shows just how versatile the whole Lego world can be, and how Lego world-builders can take Legos and make pretty much dang near anything—Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Joker, Catwoman, King Kong, Han Solo, Gandalf, and now ninjas. And Lego fans show no signs of giving up the blocks.
“I haven’t felt this good in a long time!” Lloyd effuses at one point.
Many Lego lovers will likely feel the same way, out the theater door and all the way to the Lego store.
In theaters Sept. 22, 2017