by Khari J. Sampson
Movie Reviews
Gwinnett Daily News

Although I greatly enjoyed the previous theatrical Lego films, I was not enthused about The Lego Ninjago Movie, a third animated outing. I didn’t see the point — not with an actual sequel to the 2014 original The Lego Movie on the way in 2019 and so soon after The Batman Lego Movie earlier this year.

And indeed, this is not a sequel to either of those films. It’s more of a companion piece. So it was an open question whether it’d build on the themes of the other two or be more like that Lego piece you step on barefoot in the middle of the night.

After a brief live-action framing sequence, the film centers around the Ninjago team, a Power Rangers-like group of superheroes who repel the nearly daily attacks of arch-villain Lord Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), whose high-school-aged son, Lloyd (Dan Franco), is ostracized by nearly every other student due to the crimes of his absent parent. His only friends: a quintet of other classmates who are secretly his color-coded Ninjago teammates. It’s a marked contrast to his popularity as the masked Green Ninja, hero of Ninjago City, whose residents have no idea that his fight with Garmadon is very personal.

Ninjago maintains the blend of stop-motion and CG animation that’s been the theatrical Lego movies’ trademark. Thematically, in style and substance, Ninjago is closest to Lego Batman in that it’s essentially about superheroes. But where the earlier film was something of a sendup of Batman movies, Ninjago attempts to skewer the tropes of Asian cinema, including anime, martial arts films, giant monster movies and sentai TV shows (literally “squadron” in Japanese, but here referring to kids’ shows similar to Power Rangers).

The former is most evident in the wise old Master Wu (Jackie Chan, who also appears in the framing scene), who attempts to mentor his students beyond being mere pilots of giant robot fighting machines (and there’s the anime/sentai influence). Villainous Garmadon also could pass for a Lego-ized, gender bent Rita Repulsa or any number of evil types from a sentai show. It’s all great fun for fans of either genre but might leave others a bit underwhelmed.

Fortunately, that’s only the surface of the film. It also doubles down on the father-son sub-theme that emerged in the final act of The Lego Movie — indeed, exploration of family connections are all over the story. Much of the film centers around Lloyd’s longing for a real dad in the wake of Garmadon’s absenteeism. There’s a subplot of sibling rivalry between the villain and Wu. And, of course, there’s the backstory of how Garmadon and Lloyd’s mom, Koko (Olivia Munn), split up. One wonders if the makers of these kids’ films are working through their own family-of-origin issues.

A flaw is that aside from Chan’s character and Lloyd, the other heroes are mostly cyphers representing the elements of water, fire, earth, ice and lightning. There’s the Girl One (Water Ninja, voiced by Abbi Jacobson), the One With The Scar (Fire Ninja, Michael Peña) and the One Who Doesn’t Have the Scar (Earth Ninja, Fred Armisen). The only ones who stand out even a little more are the Robot One (Ice Ninja, Zach Woods) and Jay, the One Who Gets Scared (Lightning Ninja, Kumail Nanjiani). The best I can say about this lot is that they never become annoying. And in a frenetic kids’ movie, “not-annoying” is a distinctly positive factor.

Another positive factor that made the other Lego movies wildly entertaining was their deft use of the toy line’s wide range of licenses to introduce jokes and cameos galore. But this one doesn’t have nearly as much of the pop culture element (and probably represents an attempt to see if the concept works without using expensive licenses). If it were a lesser movie, Ninjago might have suffered for lack of that comedic crutch. But Ninjago is another fine construction in the Lego franchise. It’s funny in the same self-effacing way as its predecessors — right down to its occasional intersections with the “real world” — and bears the same compassionate heart in its blocks.

That said, I worry that the formula will wear thin long before the franchise will. For while there’s a timelessness to these Lego movies’ inspirational stories of family and community, there seems also to be a tendency to build the same sort of thing — similar to how I, as a boy, tended to only build spaceship after spaceship with my Legos. Perhaps it’s time to let another play with the toys.

In the meantime, though, Ninjago stands as tall as Garmadon’s volcano-island base. And that’s pretty tall.