The LEGO Ninjago Movie lacks the crucial comedic focuses of the first two installments in this quickly-expanding series.
The original — The Lego Movie — spoofed the increasingly derivative genre of animated movies, without being incisively witty enough to be considered satire. The superior sequel — this year’s The LEGO Batman Movie — joyously sent-up the equally-derivative superhero genre. I may have found the latter so much better because of the added specificity contributed by the movie filtering its humor through the prism of the plentiful celluloid adaptations of Bruce Wayne. Since he’s the most represented comic book character on the big screen, using him as a target narrowed the lens to elicit more grounded yucks, especially in relation to the first’s attempts to carpet-bomb an entire genre.
Yet even that was more satisfying than the lenlessness of The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Though the title may lead some to believe that it lovingly mocks Ninja movies, doing so probably would’ve entailed succumbing to too many tired and inappropriate stereotypes (as is, despite the diversity of the voice actors, I couldn’t help but question the racial optics of all the legos sharing the same skin/toy tone except the black-hued villain). Without a clear point of attack, the film ultimately resembles just another animated movie, the sort that the initial Lego Movie lambasted.
Sure, it still bears the franchise’s now-signature post-modernly self-aware and self-referential pithiness — with wonkily wink-wink music supervision to match — and wonderfully expressive voice acting by the deep ensemble, but these traits are basically trademarks of average animated flicks nowadays.
It easily could’ve taken more creative routes merely hinted at throughout. Channeling beloved tropes of Japanese cinema — especially anime, which is barely touched upon — may have reigned in the proceedings without being offensive. Alternatively, if the six screenwriters and three directors (you better believe this absurd number of creators is at least partially responsible for the excessive generality) wanted to take a more emotionally-resonant route — which would’ve been a refreshing course considering the fluffy nature of most animated fare — they should’ve fleshed out the central father-son storyline. A kid stuck between — on one hand — alienation from a distant, evil-genius dad more concerned with his diabolical plots, and — on the other hand — ostracization by a society that blames him for his papa’s poisonous behavior, is the sort of relationship worthy of further exploration without being derailed by devolving into bouts of eye-rollingly lowest-common-denominator comedy. It would’ve been possible to handle this material in a serious manner without forsaking the intended silliness.
Yet once again, compared to these ideas and the imaginative ones found in the first two outings, The Lego NINJAGO Movie feels straightforwardly standard.