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The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Sarah Ward

The third LEGO-based movie proves jam-packed with energy, and at its best when it's nodding to real-word play.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Image: movie still The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

A quiet moment is difficult to find in The LEGO Ninjago Movie. The third movie inspired by the interlocking construction blocks that have brightened up countless childhoods, it zips by with the speed of a kid unsnapping unwanted pieces and flinging them across the room. Scenes rush past as though they can’t get off the screen fast enough. Gags fly thick and fast, though not all of them land. Familiar plots, tropes and clichés are all stacked on top of each other to form a big toy pile. The plaything-to-film franchise knows what it’s about – upbeat, energetic amusement; team-centric, confidence-boosting tales; and pop culture references aplenty – and it doesn’t need to take any time to contemplate its existence.

As The LEGO Movie demonstrated back in 2014, the series also knows how people actually interact with its plastic bricks; indeed, building its story around the way that kids interact with LEGO was one of the first feature’s masterstrokes. And, when it came to going around again with The LEGO Batman Movie earlier in 2017, casting that aside in favour of a superhero story was a misstep. Based on LEGO’s Ninjago line – which hit shelves in 2011, and has spawned video games, graphic novels and a seven-season TV program – The LEGO Ninjago Movie splits the difference, but it’s at its best when it embraces just what makes the toys fun. Sometimes, that includes making up imaginative stories that cobble from other tales and morph from one thing to the next in an instant. Sometimes, it’s the actual, physical chaos. 

In a film directed by feature first-timers Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan – from a script credited to the latter two with four others, with three others getting story nods – The LEGO Ninjago Movie enters the world of its title: a city where the balance of good and evil makes itself plain in a fight between the nefarious, attention-seeking Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux, TV’s The Leftovers) and a six-strong ninja force. Teenager Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco, Nerve) is caught in the middle, with his absent dad making him the most hated kid in school, and his involvement with the Power Rangers-like hero squad kept a secret. When the elder Garmadon wages yet another attack, Lloyd’s act of resistance unwittingly unleashes an even bigger threat

As an awkward family reunion unfurls, the entire tale is framed as a story told by an antique store owner (Kung Fu Yoga’s Jackie Chan, who does double duty as the ninja team’s wise mentor Master Wu) to a curious boy (Kaan Guldur, short Red Ink), in live-action sequences. More than providing a The Princess Bride-style bookending device, it smartly and savvily signpost’s the feature’s awareness of childhood play. Kids spin stories when they’re fashioning blocks into everything from flying vessels to sprawling cities, just as they fend off household interlopers while they’re doing so – and the manner in which the movie works that element into the narrative proves its most perceptive touch, as well as its most consistently hilarious. In this vein, the hectic nature of the imagery and gags is also apt, recognising not only how fast even a single session of LEGO shenanigans can speed by, but the way in which children return to and build upon their own flights of fancy.

Still, The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s astute insights are packaged in a busy, bustling film that sometimes threatens to burst; however its voice work also helps. Theroux’s vocals might sound like a blend of Will Arnett’s LEGO Batman protagonist and Will Ferrell’s LEGO Movie villain, but they’re melodically entertaining, while Franco gives Lloyd the requisite everyman flavour. While many of the emotional ups and downs their characters weather are predictable, they sell the many layers of their complex father-son relationship. Familiar-sounding support comes from the likes of Fred Armisen (Battle of the Sexes), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Michael Peña (CHIPS), Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) as fellow ninjas, plus Olivia Munn (Office Christmas Party) as Lloyd’s mother, all adding to the texture of a feature erected from CGI simulations of real-life toys with both the glossiness and messiness that combination entails.

3 stars out of 5

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan        

Denmark / USA, 2017, 101 mins

Release date: September 21

Distributor: Roadshow

Rated: PG

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay