Beginning with a live-action introduction that’s lifted virtually whole from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, this is the third film entry in the Danish, petroleum-based, imagination-activated toy and media empire. The good news is there’s at least two thoroughly inspired comedic sequences that nearly made me choke on my popcorn. The bad news is that unlike the previous two LEGO movies (2014’s The LEGO Movie; this year’s The LEGO Batman Movie), Ninjago reeks of the dreaded marketing ploy, wherein a subset of LEGO’s omnivorous, pop-cultural universe is shunted out into the public arena minus so much of the topical wit and actual emotion of the prior two films. In short, this LEGO outing feels like a cheap shot aimed directly at the ADHD attention spans of the under-10 set. Unless they’re into trippy colors and flying mecha-dragons (apparently lifted from Michael Bay’s Transformers films), moms and dads will find themselves dozing off early on as the story plods on.
Speaking of the plot, if you’re familiar with the little-known film Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back you’ll realize why Green Ninja, aka Lloyd (Franco) is so desperate for a compliment, or any familial recognition whatsoever, from black-clad supervillain Garmadon (Theroux), who weekly lays waste to the Ninjago team’s home port city.
Ninjago’s sprawling team of screenwriters – nine credits in all – throw every joke they can at the screen, but few of them stick in your memory for longer than a moment. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag involving the infamous “Wilhelm scream” woke me up, as did the introduction, 50 minutes in, of a dreaded “ultimate weapon” that deftly mixes a live-action feline with the CGI Ninjago team. But much of the film is far too similar to the hoary source material it draws from. With a target audience that is far too young to appreciate the occasional nods to the Shaw Brothers’ chopsocky classics and a plot that is ultimately a rehash of a rehash of a rehash – albeit dumbed down considerably – this LEGO movie is akin to Jackie Chan’s more recent, less classic, film output. To paraphrase the Chinese scholar/philosopher Confucius (yes, I know he was Chinese and ninjas are a purely Japanese construct, but still): “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.” Warner Bros. and LEGO, I’m looking at you.
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