What made its predecessors such surprising successes is missing from The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Where 2014's The LEGO Movie and the recent The LEGO Batman Movie grounded their rambunctiousness with an emotional component that was both welcome and unexpected, this third installment utilizing the toy building blocks of the title mostly offers only rambunctiousness. That the film has three directors and six credited screenwriters means the movie has an undeniably by-committee feel that constantly undermines its attempts to set itself apart from the kind of colorfully numbing, instantly forgettable fare that the other films so nimbly avoided.
The screenplay also has a surprising and disappointing focus on its plot, which is given a useless, live-action framing device in which Jackie Chan plays a martial artist/shopkeeper who teaches a young boy (played by Kaan Guldur) a lesson about something-or-other by way of the driving narrative of the movie. The impression by the end of the story is that there are a lot of distractions on the path to the shopkeeper's lesson, which really could have been conveyed much more quickly. The story is, in its essence, a fable in the telling of it by the shopkeeper. The movie, though, is a standard, action-comedy hybrid that happens to have a moral. It is as confused in its purpose as it sounds.
In it, the town of Ninjago (pronounced 'nin-JAH-goh') is visited by the destruction, threatened or actualized, of Lord Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), a villain who looks vaguely like Sauron but is exponentially less threatening. In fact, he reminds a lot of both previous villains in this franchise, in that his "villainy" is just a sardonic personality with a bent toward psychopathy. The citizens of the town, though, barely seem to fear his wrath. Newscasters from a popular morning show announce his planned attacks with nonchalance and recommend their viewers stay inside. Schoolchildren are taught to "duck and cover," as if Lord Garmadon's attacks are nuclear in capability.
There is only one line of defense against Lord Garmadon's wrath, although the Secret Ninjas, whose activities are widely reported and not at all secret, turn out to be rather pitiful in their efforts. Led by Lord Garmadon's own son Lloyd (voice of Dave Franco), to whom his father refers by pronouncing both 'l's, we learn approximately nothing about any of the other members of the team, except that one (voiced by Zach Woods) is a robot in denial of that fact and another (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is a girl. The plot fizzles out after Wu (voiced by Chan), a master in martial arts, sends them on a journey (during which Lloyd and his father bond a lot) to find the "ultimate, ultimate weapon" that will destroy the monster currently destroying Ninjago after Lloyd accidentally unleashed it.
The amusing bits here continues the series' trend of throwing a lot at once at their viewers, such as the identity of the monster (which also takes a mostly live-action form) and the personality quirks of Garmadon beyond being a rather toothless and generic baddie. It ends up being too much of a good thing that eventually becomes a tiresome thing. Once again, the animation style, which takes on the impression of stop-motion, is impressive, and the action sequences are still wistful blurs of color without becoming garish. The last thing one expects to undo The LEGO Ninjago Movie is its plot within a charmingly plotless universe, but alas, here we are.
Jackie Chan (Mr. Liu/Voice of Master Wu), Kaan Guldur (Kid). Featuring the voices of Dave Franco (Lloyd), Justin Theroux (Garmadon), Fred Armisen (Cole), Kumail Nanjiani (Jay), Michael Pena (Kai), Zach Woods (Zane), Abbi Jacobson (Nya), Olivia Munn (Koko), Robin Roberts (Robin Roberts), and Michael Strahan (Michael Strahan).
Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan and written by Fisher, Logan, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, and John Whittington.
Rated PG (mild action, rude humor).
Released on September 22, 2017.