'The LEGO Ninjago Movie' Review: A Pretty Good Movie That Showcases A Franchise Running Low On Gas

Even after decades of toy-based movies, it still seemed impossible that the 2014 animated film The LEGO Movie could ever work. A movie that uses the minifigs that cause kids delight and parents frustration when they fall underfoot? Ridiculous. And yet, The LEGO Movie was a surprisingly, gleefully anarchic story that managed to rise above its corporate origins. A few months ago, that film's creative and financial success spawned, naturally, a spin-off: The LEGO Batman Movie, which was just as satisfying as its predecessor despite presenting the umpteenth version of the Caped Crusader. Now, because success begets more stabs at success, we have The LEGO Ninjago Movie. This one doesn't derive inspiration from any of the characters from the world where everything is awesome, but retains the same tone and spirit, to the point of being a bit too familiar.

That familiarity extends to the story, inspired by the Ninjago toy line and TV series of the same name. Here, Dave Franco provides the voice of Lloyd, a teenager living in the eponymous metropolis with his loving mother (Olivia Munn). Lloyd has a group of misfit friends, but is largely ostracized because his father is Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), the terrifying warmonger who's constantly attacking Ninjago in the hopes of becoming its new leader. Lord Garmadon is always stopped by a group of six ninjas who utilize mechanical vehicles and animals to stave off his attacks. Garmadon doesn't realize (nor does anyone else) that the ninjas are Lloyd and his friends in disguise, until events spiral out of control and Lloyd must work with his father to bring peace to Ninjago once again.

How this all plays out is mostly in line with the two previous LEGO Movies: with the first film's directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, credited as producers, the humor is the same off-kilter blend of hip and nerdy. (The highlight is when the six ninjas, at a low point, watch a series of martial-arts movies to learn some new moves, allowing the filmmakers to unleash a barrage of parody titles.) Most of the cast is synonymous with modern comedy — Franco, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, and Michael Pena play the heroic sextet. Plus, there's the goofy thrill of hearing martial-arts legend Jackie Chan as the group's wise mentor. Theoretically, The LEGO Ninjago Movie has all the ingredients of what made the other films in this expanding series work.

In execution, this film seems predictable where The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie were surprising. As in those films, there are countless rapid-fire non sequiturs and throwaway gags; the best of them, when Woods' ice ninja offhandedly remarks that their characters are "like the Harlem Globetrotters," will arguably sail over any child's head. (The same goes for a moment when Garmadon, trying to bond with Lloyd, plays some music on shuffle and mutters hopefully, "Please not Jim Croce, please not Jim Croce.") Gags like these populate the other LEGO films, but the sense of madcap, child-like fun is somewhat absent.

The LEGO Movie was an appropriately wild distillation of what it could be like for kids to create their own world of the minifigs. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is akin to adults playing at being children, a feeling that's hard to shake from the start: as in the 2014 film, this one includes a bit of live-action, with bookend scenes where a boy wanders into a Chinese curio shop whose owner (Chan in the flesh) tells him the story of Ninjago. Consider how The LEGO Movie is the opposite: a child's story concocted to rebel against an adult. This isn't to say that Ninjago isn't fun, but creative inertia is starting to set in. Maybe that's why there are nine (!) credited writers and five (!!) credited editors, bringing together as many disparate threads as possible in the hopes of making something work.

A good chunk of the film, to its credit, does work. Though the father-son issues at the story's core are by now rote, both Franco and Theroux do a decent job of bringing life to their more-similar-than-they'd-admit characters. The way that Garmadon briefly turns to the side of good allows Theroux more to do than simply metaphorically twirl a mustache while destroying a town of innocent civilians. Although the other ninjas don't get much in the form of characterization, both Nanjiani and Woods get the chance to shine as, respectively, a more cowardly ninja and one who's a very poorly-hidden robot. And the rapid-fire style of humor allows for the film to fly by as quickly as the punches do.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie represents a possible turning point for Warner Bros. Pictures, because it's made in the spirit of the previous LEGO movies without being directly connected to those films' characters. Smartly, the group of animators and filmmakers are trying to mimic those films' styles, not just telling a martial-arts-themed story but acknowledging the inherent silliness of doing so with LEGO figurines. (At multiple points in the film, characters mention fingers or toes and then note that they literally have neither appendage.) The LEGO Ninjago Movie is enjoyable enough, but the signs are evident that there may not be much more to draw from this particular well.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10