Review: ‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie,’ Starring Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan, Olivia Munn

You can make anything you want with LEGO blocks, but the LEGO franchise has now made three versions of the same film. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a derivative spin on the same sort of story already told in The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, and arriving in theaters only half a year after the latter, feels very familiar indeed.

Sharing a universe with the TV show and toys that already make up the Ninjago world, the movie plays around with the same elements the two preceding LEGO films have already used. There is a central male character who isn’t sure of his identity or his purpose; action sequences that rely on small-scale destruction; and self-aware jokes about the construction of LEGO figures, like their lack of fingers. But those elements don’t seem as unique or as creative on this third attempt, and The LEGO Ninjago Movie suffers for it.

LEGO Ninjago focuses on 16-year-old Lloyd Garmadon (voiced by Dave Franco), who lives with his mother, office worker Koko (voiced by Olivia Munn), in an apartment in Ninjago City. It seems like a pretty normal existence—she’s an overprotective mom, he’s an awkward teenager—except for the fact that Lloyd’s father is Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), an evil warlord who lives in a volcano across from Ninjago City and tries to invade it on a near-daily basis. With countless generals, weapons, and tools at his disposal, Garmadon is a self-involved jerk, and Lloyd’s bullied and derided by classmates, people at the bus stop, and even strangers because of his father. (No one seems to say anything to or about Koko, which is weird.)

But what almost no one knows is that Lloyd is part of a team of ninjas who defend Ninjago City from Garmadon; as the Green Ninja, he pilots a dragon-shaped “mech” and often leads the charge against his absentee dad. Under the wisdom and training of Master Wu (voiced by Jackie Chan), Lloyd and his fellow ninjas channel their elemental powers (lightning, air, earth, water, and fire) to taking on Garmadon’s generals. They are the only thing standing in his way.

Still, none of it seems quite enough for Lloyd: He wants to confront Garmadon about his failures as a father; he wants Master Wu to answer why all the other ninjas have elemental powers but Lloyd doesn’t; and he wants some acknowledgment and recognition from the people of Ninjago City that he’s not a loser. And when Garmadon threatens a new weapon and method of attack that could finally bring Ninjago City under his power, Lloyd is really, truly tested—and learns that being a hero isn’t exactly what he thought.

It’s less interesting to talk about what actually happens in The LEGO Ninjago Movie than to wonder about what could have happened if the filmmakers, the studio, or the franchise had made any choices that were different from what has already been done with LEGO Batman or The LEGO Movie. What if the movie hadn’t focused on Lloyd, but on his mother, Koko, whose own fascinating backstory is only briefly glimpsed toward the film’s conclusion? What if Lord Garmadon hadn’t been a total deadbeat dad, but was a great father who hid his secret life as a warlord—and whose reveal ethically compromised Lloyd? What if the movie didn’t rely on YouTube viral videos and the presence of a fourth-wall-breaking cat for humor? What if, what if, what if.

There are some positive elements sprinkled throughout LEGO Ninjago, though, and they mostly appear when the movie slows down its breakneck speed enough to let its world really develop. A community of Garmadon’s rejected generals, whose expulsion from his volcano lair has made them deranged and zombie-like, are believably amusing villains, and Chan’s performance as Master Wu is grounding and nicely matter-of-fact. But the film focuses so much on Lloyd and Garmadon and their troubled father-son dynamic (a regurgitation of what we saw with Batman and Robin in LEGO Batman) that no other characters really resonate, and although the “mech” designs are visually detailed, they’re primarily used in action scenes so choppily edited that you’ll barely be able to follow what the ninjas are doing.

After the release of The LEGO Ninjago Movie, this franchise gets a bit of a break until 2019, when the proper LEGO Movie Sequel and yet another spinoff film, The Billion Brick Race, both hit theaters. That’s almost two years away, and maybe we’ll want to visit this universe again. But hopefully there will actually be something more unique than The LEGO Ninjago Movie to experience in this world by then.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs