Tom Hunter reviews the new film from the Lego franchise
Back in 2014, much of the world was sceptical of Warner Bros’ upcoming The Lego Movie. “A movie based on the company who successfully monopolised the world of plastic building blocks?!” we cried, “whatever will they try to feed us next? A movie about Emojis? Don’t make me laugh!”
But we were wrong. Fast forward to 2017 and The Emoji Movie has been and gone, leaving a dirty, millennial taste in everyone’s mouths, while the Lego franchise has gone full steam ahead with two films in one year: The Lego Batman Movie and now The Lego Ninjago Movie.
Lego Batman ticked all the boxes of a conventional spinoff: a supporting character from the original inadvertently becomes fundamental to its popularity and, as such, is rewarded accordingly with their own outing on the big screen. The extensive history of the Batman franchise granted a wealth of material for a new team of writers to get stuck into and as a result it survives triumphantly on its own, with only vague call-backs to the concepts established by the first.
Ninjago has no such leg to stand on. Coming out of the film, you will know nothing more about the concept or world than you did before you entered because, frankly, it isn’t necessary, and the film knows this. Now, on the one hand, since the film doesn’t rely on any core principles or ideas relating to the franchise, it doesn’t affect one’s engagement or enjoyment.
On the other, it betrays a pretty damning lack of passion and questions the film’s necessity in the first place. Ninjago is just a label slapped onto a script. This is further pushed by a plot all too similar to the original. When the 2014 entry spectacularly revealed the secret father/son dynamic prevalent throughout, it was a defining moment that tied the film neatly together. Ninjago is blunter.
Environmentally friendly protagonist Lloyd (Dave Franco) is the Green Ninja, whilst big baddie Garmadon (Justin Theroux) is his dad. Commence the plot. Furthermore, the live-action segments that gave the original its clever spark return in the form of Jackie Chan and his mysterious Asian shop. If that sounds reductive, it isn’t.
Jackie Chan owns a super-secret shop and a small, friendless kid stumbles in. Cue the familiar trope of the ‘everyone is special in their own special way of specialness’ speech (where mystical old man Chan is revealed to be wise, proficient in martial arts, and a fellow Lego enthusiast of all things) and we finally arrive in Legoland. All the notes are the same, just in a debatably worse order.
For all its similarities however, the film has enough charm of its own to render any accusations of being a cash-grab obsolete. Justin Theroux’s Garmadon may be a re-skin of Will Ferrell’s Lord Business, but since he’s funnier and more memorable it’s hard to get too upset. Seriously, if you don’t find him pronouncing his son’s name ‘Lloyd’ as ‘Luh-Loyd’ (because it has two Ls) f****** hilarious, you’re a heartless monster.
Speaking of Luh-Loyd, Dave Franco is certainly the weakest main character the franchise has produced, but following Chris Pratt and Will Arnett’s Batman was always going to be a tough billing, though it’s often said that a hero is only ever as good as the villain he faces. With that in mind, balancing Franco with Theroux, the best and the worst of the trilogy, creates a very pleasant and charming harmony that’s hard to not grin at.
The film’s strength is in its snowballing effect. The opening salvo of action and mayhem is so infectiously stupid that by the time the silliness tapers off during the second act, it has enough momentum to leave you giddy until the closing credits. Perhaps it’s an unnecessary third film, perhaps it doesn’t have the heart or soul of its older siblings, and perhaps the vast majority of the cast are forgettable.
But then again, perhaps none of that matters because, at the end of the day, it’s more of the same brick-ey, goofy goodness we’ve learned to expect and love. And is that such a bad thing?