The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the first LEGO movie where I went in not having much of an investment on what happened. I cared about The LEGO Movie because I like LEGO, and I cared about The LEGO Batman Movie because I like Batman, but Ninjago is a LEGO sub-brand where I’ve never really been caught up with the toys (basically Japanese-inspired mechs) or the Cartoon Network series LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. And yet what The LEGO Ninjago Movie shows is that these LEGO movies have now established an identity outside of the initial brand, and they can stand on their own as light, funny family comedies. While it’s the weakest of the three LEGO movies thus far, it’s still surprisingly sweet and charming even if its plot elements are reminiscent of the first two LEGO films.
Lloyd (Dave Franco) is a teenager living with his mom Koko (Olivia Munn) in the city of Ninjago, which is constantly under assault by Lloyd’s estranged father, Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Lloyd is pretty much a social pariah due to his father’s actions, which is made even more frustrating by the fact that Lloyd and his friends Cole (Fred Armisen), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Kai (Michael Pena), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), and Zane (Zach Woods) are secretly ninjas who protect the city every time Garmadon comes to town. When Lloyd accidentally unleashes the Ultimate Weapon on the city, he and his friends must team up with Garmadon to find the Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon and save Ninjago.
So stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s an outcast, young guy who must save his city from a nefarious father figure, and it turns out the solution to the problem is not to defeat one’s enemy, but to work with them for the greater good. That father-son reconciliation features in The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie as does working with the villain (Lord Business, Joker, Garmadon) to save the day. That’s not to say that the films are redundant, but they’ve clearly found plot beats that they’re comfortable with, and they don’t really want to rock the boat or dynamics they’ve set up. Although that may end up getting tedious sooner rather than later, for now it works since most other family films (and blockbuster films in general) are about competition and domination rather than collaboration and reconciliation.
For now, the formula works, especially since the filmmakers have a strong read on the kind of comedy they want to do in these movies. If you liked the humor in The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, you’ll probably be on board with what’s happening Ninjago. Although LEGO Movie is a bit sharper and Batman has the benefit of satirizing a widely beloved character, Ninjago coasts along simply being cute and funny. It has no problem leaning into an extended joke where Lloyd, disguised as the Green Ninja, tries to get Garmadon to admit that he feels remorse for abandoning his child only to have Garmadon keep coming back to inconsequential regrets like missing out on his favorite sushi place. It’s frequently silly, but I can’t really complain since I had a big smile plastered on my face throughout the film.
It’s almost a shame that with so many good moments between Lloyd and Garmadon, the script doesn’t spread the love around so we get to know the supporting cast better. Lloyd’s friends rarely get to be much more than the background ninjas, and while you might get the broadest characterizations—Zane is secretly a robot, Nya is a girl, Jay is kind of timid, Cole is into music—there’s really not much shading there to differentiate them. This is Lloyd’s story, and his focus on Garmadon makes the friendships feel hollow to the point where we’re left to wonder why these five teens decided to give Lloyd a shot while the rest of the world views him with disdain.
Although it doesn’t hit as well as The LEGO Movie or The LEGO Batman Movie, The LEGO Ninjago movie is still a delight, and a promising path forward for future LEGO spinoffs. The animation looks better than ever, and there’s a nice combination of humor and heart at the center of the film. Even if you have no affinity for the Ninjago brand or never watched an episode of the TV series, you’ll still find plenty to enjoy with these silly little ninjas.