Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a hilariously funny and heartwarmingly sweet look at what happens when your dad is the evil warlord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), aka The Worst Guy Ever, and you’re just a teenager trying to get through high school as unscathed as possible. Master Builder Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, and his group of friends (voiced by Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson and Zach Woods) are secret ninja warriors who must do the impossible – fight to save Ninjago from destruction, either at the hands of his power-hungry father or Meowthra, who’s taking it apart one LEGO brick at a time.
While at the LEGOLAND California Resort for the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with producers Dan Lin and Chris McKay to talk about how The LEGO Ninjago Movie fits into the larger LEGO universe, making sure the films always come back to the emotional story at their core, finding humor in the small moments, what bringing in voice actors who are also writers adds to the process, what their own personal mechs would look like, and what to expect from The LEGO Movie 2. McKay also talked about how things are coming with his Nightwing movie and why he wants to make it as practical as possible.
Collider: If each LEGO film is both a stand-alone saga as well as a progression through the larger LEGO universe, what is this film’s place in that universe?
CHRIS McKAY: It’s a solid third place.
You don’t have to rank it with a number.
McKAY: Oh, I’m sorry! That’s not what you were asking?!
DAN LIN: We’re trying to approach different genres. The first one was the adventure genre. The second one was the superhero genre that Chris directed. The third one is our version of a martial arts/giant robot movie. They’re all very different. Where it differs from the other movies is that we think it’s probably the most beautiful movie. We’ve learned a lot from these movies, and the technology keeps changing. We’ve incorporated natural elements, to this extent, for the first time, as far as water, fire and smoke, and it just looks really cool. The genre allows us to do crazy things, in a LEGO movie way. In what movie do you have a cat come into the middle of the movie?
And the cat doesn’t even know he’s the villain of the movie!
McKAY: He has absolutely no idea, whatsoever, that he’s the villain!
LIN: So, what’s great about these movies is that they’re always about a kid playing with their LEGOs and the story they’re telling in their mind while they’re playing. In this case, there’s a kid playing with LEGOs and a cat came into play. The movie is just so wacky. We have our underlying logic, but we can do some crazy things, whether it’s crazy cut-away martial arts videos or the cat, itself.
McKAY: The thing that’s similar about all of the LEGO movies and that’s different from other animated movies is that we’re always trying to make it feel like the filmmakers are getting away with something and that the inmates are running the asylum. We’ll throw what might be good taste in an animated film out the window, or press pause on it for a second, to do things that would be from a kid playing with his toys and imaging this story. It’s the innocent childlike expression of conflict. What’s consistent throughout the LEGO movies is that it’s a kid’s riff. Ninjago is what a kid who maybe watched Shaw Brothers movies and giant mech Robotech stuff, and a Godzilla movie mash-up thrown in there. When we started out making these movies, we said that we wanted them all to feel like 10-year-old Michael Bay and 10-year-old Henry Selick were neighbors and they got together, and one of their dad’s had a bunch of money, so they had all the LEGOs they could get their hands on, a camera, infinite time, and a whole summer to make movies. That’s what these movies should feel like, with the absurd self-seriousness and epic scope of a Michael Bay movie and the absurd flights of fancy and sweetness and sincerity of a Henry Selick movie. The combination of those things is something we’d want to watch, and that we think other people would want to watch, so that’s what we’ve always set out to achieve, in any of the movies that we’ve done and are continuing to do.
LIN: You asked how it fits in, and the vision is that it’s these kids who live on the same street. In the first one, you met Finn. In the second one, you didn’t meet the boy or girl who played with Batman. In Ninjago, you meet the kid. It just allows us to give each LEGO movie a different personality, as if there’s a different kid playing LEGO in each movie.
Some of the funniest moments in this film are small moments.
LIN: Part of that is the strategy, too. We bring in performers who are writer/actors. With LEGO Batman, Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis and Michael Cera are great writers in their own field, outside of acting. With LEGO Ninjago, we’ve got Justin [Theroux], Kumail [Nanjiani] and Abbi [Jacobson]. A lot of these actors are just terrific writers, too, and it helps us to really plus the characters.
This movie could easily go off on endless tangents because there are so many things going on, but it has a special story about family, friendship and teamwork. How important is it, to make sure those themes are there and that it’s not just a bunch of gags?
McKAY: If you look at the first cut, it does sometimes feel exactly like what you’re describing. It’s like, “We’ve got a lot of gags in here that go all over the place. We should probably make a story.” But I do think we’ve had an inside-out process, from the beginning. There are a lot of mission drifts, throughout the process, but we’re always starting on the inside with what Lloyd feels about his relationship with his dad, or with what Lloyd thinks he’s good at or wants to be, or what Lloyd thinks is the real problem. We always start there, and then go out to try to fit everything else into it. The thing about movie-making is that you’re bringing a lot of different partners in. You’re bringing in LEGO, the studio, the actors, other writers, other filmmakers, storyboard artists and animators. Everyone is taking a piece of it, and it’s the filmmakers job to say, “Okay, but it’s always going to be about this, and we’re always going to go back to this and measure everything by this thing.” That’s how we try to corral all of that stuff. If you adhere to that, whatever the thing is that you chose, as long as you are always bringing things back to that, you can have these tangents. Wes Anderson is probably a really good example of that because his movies are, more often than not, the theme or the big idea that he’s going for, but you can go off on these great tangents that are thrilling and are the things that you remember most about the movie. As long as you’ve got the thing that holds you to it and you’re always coming back to that, that’s why you’re emotionally satisfied, by the end of the movie. The best filmmakers are magicians. They’re always showing you this one thing, but bringing it in.
LIN: Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] always say that the magic trick of these movies is that they make you feel. It’s plastic toys, but then you’re surprised when you’re actually tearing up. In this movie, hopefully people tear up in the third act. Each movie is different, but we’ve had people come to us and say, “We were laughing, and surprisingly we found ourselves tearing up with the emotion.” That’s a big deal. You really care for these characters, through the first two-thirds of the movie.