The LEGO Ninjago Movie is an underwhelming series installment hamstrung by a thin script and weak characters that don't leave much of an impact.
The city of Ninjago is frequently attacked by the villainous Garmadon (Justin Theroux), to the point where his constant strikes have become a regular part of everyday life. This makes things rather difficult for Garmadon's teenage son Lloyd (Dave Franco), who is a social outcast because of his familial connection to Ninjago's would-be conquerer. Harboring deep resentment for his absentee father, Lloyd secretly leads a Ninja Force consisting of his school friends Kai (Michael Peña), Zane (Zach Woods), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jackson), and Cole (Fred Armisen) that fights back against Garmadon and regularly saves the citizens of Ninjago. The group is under the tutelage of Lloyd's uncle, Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who dispels wisdom to help his students realize their full potential.
During one of their many altercations, Lloyd's personal feelings towards Garmadon causes him to act irrationally, and as a result, Ninjago faces an even greater threat that must be stopped as soon as possible. With the only remedy to the problem located on the opposite side of the island, the Secret Ninja Force have no choice but to embark on an epic quest, where they will hopefully learn some important lessons about themselves along the way.
Following the blockbuster success of Phil Lord and Chris Miller's The LEGO Movie in 2014, Warner Bros. began to develop a full cinematic universe based on the property. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the second spinoff in the franchise, after The LEGO Batman Movie was released earlier this year. In a short period of time, the LEGO films have earned a reputation for being heartfelt pieces of entertainment that transcend their standing as commercials for toys, and the hope was Ninjago could provide a fun riff on martial arts movies with LEGO's trademark sense of humor. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is an underwhelming series installment hamstrung by a thin script and weak characters that don't leave much of an impact.
Whereas previous LEGO entries were able to weave fascinating bits of subtext and heavy themes into family films, Ninjago seems content with a very bare-bones narrative that doesn't do much digging below the surface. The story is quite basic and almost painfully generic at times, moving along a predictable trajectory that rarely (if ever) surprises the audience with a deeper meaning. There's definitely a solid foundation here for a quality movie, but none of the concepts feel fully-realized and developed. This may have something to do with the fact there are six credited writers on the screenplay, making Ninjago a byproduct of having too many cooks in the kitchen, all with their own ideas they want to incorporate.
The main crux of the story is the dynamic between Garmadon and Lloyd, which is hardly the most compelling. As the film's big bad, the former is woefully underwritten as a caricature of an evil dark lord, lacking any kind of meaningful motivation beyond wishing to take over the world for no discernible reason. Theroux does have a fun time hamming it up as the antagonist, but there isn't much for him to do. Likewise, Franco's Lloyd is your run-of-the-mill troubled teenager trying to find his place in the world. The script barely takes the time to flesh its main hero out, toying with some interesting angles (like making Lloyd's Green Ninja alter ego incredibly popular), but never really runs with any of them in the long haul. The weak handling of the two leads makes their respective arcs feel unearned, as Ninjago operates on autopilot and goes through the motions.
Lloyd and Garmadon get the meatiest roles by virtue of their screen time, and the supporting cast fares even worse. The rest of Lloyd's Secret Ninja Force hardly register as individuals, being reduced to recite clichéd dialogue and very obvious jokes about their respective elements (see: "H2-oh yeah!"). In a way, they make Ninjago feel like the cynical cash grab many feared the original LEGO Movie would be when it was first announced, as the action sequences are mere showcases for cool-looking mech suit sets and little else. Instead of feeling like a team of friends with an inseparable bond, the main ninjas are just there simply to round the cast out. Chan is somewhat entertaining as Master Wu, but instead of being a clever deconstruction of the actor's filmography, the character is a standard "wise teacher" trope with little else to offer.
One thing directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan have going for them is that Ninjago will play well for its target demographic of kids with its playful and light-hearted tone. Youngsters in attendance should enjoy the numerous gags and visuals, and the story does have some morals (however thin) sprinkled throughout so they take something away from the experience. That said, this is the first LEGO film that was crafted more for children, meaning most of Ninjago could be a slog for adults hoping for something a little richer in substance. Much of the comedy is geared for the juice box crowd, which is disappointing after the other LEGO movies found a nice balance to appeal to viewers of all ages.
In the end, Ninjago is easily the weakest of the three LEGO films released to date, and is a sign that perhaps WB may have overestimated what they had from a creative perspective when they quickly green lit a slate of projects. It's difficult to catch lightning in a bottle again, and much of the freshness that made the franchise initially standout is gone here. What could have been a subversive and smart parody of martial arts cinema ended up being a derivative offering with average execution that couldn't reach the heights of its predecessors. Hopefully, The LEGO Movie Sequel marks a return to form, or the studio might have to look elsewhere for ideas.