“The LEGO Ninjago Movie”
1 hour, 41 minutes
I was trying to describe, recently, the plot of the latest outing from the Lego movie machine: “’Ninjago’ tells the story of a city where all kinds of people and cultures are all mashed together, and they get attacked by this bad guy who lives in a volcano. Then this team of teen ninjas come and protect the city and fight off the bad guy, who also happens to be the main ninja’s dad — though in secret.”
Listening to myself, that does not sound like the kind of movie I want to see. It sounds pretty lame, in fact. How is it, then, that the filmmakers behind this movie manage to pack it with as much heart, humor, and clever writing as the best movies of this year?
“Ninjago” is really great, despite any plot descriptions you may read.
Lloyd, also known as the Green Ninja, lives a pretty crummy life. As it’s pretty well known that he’s the son of the villainous Garmadon, the people of Ninjago understandably vent their frustrations on him. Little do they know that he is also the city’s biggest hero, and that, along with four of his friends, he is constantly saving them all from Garmadon’s iron fists.
All of this comes to a head on Lloyd’s birthday. Unable to take the pressure any longer, Lloyd reveals himself, and, despite being warned against it by his sage uncle (voiced by legend Jackie Chan), unleashes the “Ultimate Weapon” upon his absentee father.
This sets up a hilarious gag that I won’t spoil here, but ultimately sends Lloyd, Garmadon, and the other four ninjas on a quest into the deepest darkest jungle. Along the way they meet up with ghosts from the past, wrongs are righted, and bonds forged. But can a villain truly change? And will it be enough to stand up against the ultimate power?
The reason these Lego movies are so successful, both artistically and financially, is that they are so good at humanizing their characters. How is it that these little CGI hunks of plastic can come off as so much more honest and real than most actual human performers these days?
The secret is in relationships. That’s really what this franchise is all about. Sure, the original film was about creativity vs. linear thinking and the ability to balance the two, but ultimately it was about that little boy’s relationship with his father. “The LEGO Batman Movie” was, on the surface, a series of goofy jokes about funny villains from myriad series all joining forces, but underneath was about the importance of family, and the difficulty in learning to trust.
What’s amazing about that is that it not only managed to have a good message, it also unpacked some deep seated issues about the actual character of Batman much more successfully than any of the live action films have been able to do. And it had Will Arnett rapping, which is always nice.
In “Ninjago” we get a touching and heartfelt examination of divorce and the pain that causes, even when it’s for the best. Lloyd is lego with a boyish face and mane of white blond hair, and Garmadon is a four-armed demon who cries tears of fire, and yet their relationship and reconciliation is one of the sweetest I’ve seen on screen in a while.
I really enjoyed “Ninjago” and it gives me hope for future Lego films to come. “The Lego Movie” was a big surprise, and “The LEGO Batman Movie” seemed like an obvious choice. “Ninjago” was something I knew nothing about and yet they still maintained the quality of the original, and even, in my opinion, surpassed “Batman.”
Aside from Chan, the talented cast includes Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Justin Therox, Olivia Munn, and Kumail Nanjiani, who was so great in last week’s “The Big Sick.” I’m surprised that the reviews aren’t better for this film, but at a time when there is very little out there to take the kids to, do yourself a favor, ignore the naysayers, and head to the movies. You won’t be sorry.
“Ninjago” is rated PG for mild rude humor and cartoon violence.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.