Less a work of narrative fiction than a feature-length toy commercial, The Lego Ninjago Movie—or The Lego® Ninjago® Movie™, as the film’s title is styled on Lego’s website—is a hyperactive frenzy of gags, mech battles, and internet meme humor. Lacking The Lego Movie’s amiable satirical edge, this latest entry in the burgeoning canon of films inspired by the famous plastic construction toys seems primarily interested in serving as a demo reel for various elaborately constructed models and sets, all available for purchase after the show. With no less than three directors, six screenwriters, and seven people credited with the story, this is filmmaking by committee lacking any discernible personal stamp. It’s an assembly-line product where the only imprimatur that matters is that of the Lego Group.
A lightly parodic pastiche of Power Rangers-style group dynamics and the sort of “hero’s journey” narrative familiar to any fan of kung-fu films, the plot centers on a teen, Lloyd (Dave Franco), who’s part of a “secret ninja” group that battles evil in their hometown of Ninjago with the help of their mentor, Master Wu (Jackie Chan), and a bevy of massive mechanical vehicles. Much to Lloyd’s chagrin, his father is Garmadon (Justin Theroux), a four-armed, dragon-faced villain who periodically terrorizes Ninjago. After inadvertently unleashing the “ultimate weapon”—a real-life cat named Meowthra that, in the film’s best gag, stomps around the town like a kitty kaiju—the Secret Ninja Force sets out to find the “ultimate, ultimate weapon” to save the city.
The Lego Ninjago Movie is so steeped in East Asian references, from samurai to sushi to the Shaw Brothers, that its overwhelming focus on Lloyd, a blond-haired white guy, feels somewhat discomfiting. Cultural appropriation has been an abused and overused term at times, but if the concept describes anything, surely it’s a multi-billion-dollar Danish toy company hiring white actors to voice characters with Mandarin words written on their chests in a film that cannibalizes a broad swath of traditional and modern Asian culture.
While the relative novelty of seeing Lego-based animation on the big screen hasn’t completely worn off yet—the scuffed-up surfaces, simple facial expressions, and jam-packed Where’s Waldo?-style cityscapes remain endearing—The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t do anything new with the form. Rather, it simply amps up the already breakneck pace of the previous Lego films to the point that the action becomes a flurry of indistinguishable candy-colored blurs, and each joke barely has time to land a punchline before the film has zipped along to the next gag. There are some amusing bits, like Wu blowing out “It’s the Hard Knock Life” on his flute or an action sequence scored to Jim Croce, but the film’s cumulative effect is utter exhaustion, the cinematic equivalent of chasing a toddler through a toy store.