Thursday, February 14, 2019

Go ninja go ninja go


When one calls it "the worst LEGO movie," one's not bound to follow that assertion up with "but it's still pretty great!", or anything like that.  In fact, it fails often and severely enough to be called an actual disappointment; but The LEGO Ninjago Movie isn't actually bad, either, and on the rarest occasion manages some of the coolest stuff the franchise has ever done.

Directed by Paul Fisher, Charlie Bean, and Bob Logan
Written by at least nine whole human beings, wow

Spoiler alert: mild

The consensus says, probably because it's awfully darn close to being objectively true, that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the weakest of the feature films based on the Danish line of plastic bricks and figurines—or, rather, let's say the four theatrically-released feature films aligned with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's 2014 surprise hit, The LEGO Movie, because otherwise we're opening up a much, much wider field of home video esoterica that's  downright daunting in its enormous scope.  (I've always known that there are hundreds of hours of computer-animated LEGO cartoons, and there's never been a time when it has not seemed like too much; but to each their own.)  Of course, LEGO Ninjago already kind of obliges one to consider that expanded scope anyway, at least glancingly: the basic premise predates the theatrical franchise by years, being the subject of a television show that recently replaced the sweetly-missed Adventure Time as the longest-running Cartoon Network program, and which I am aware of in the vaguest possible way, mainly through reports that the serialized show and the movie aren't quite simpatico, and the movie annoyed the show's fans while only ever presenting to the wider public as a goofy, unfamiliar thing to be avoided like the plague.

Indeed, the development of The LEGO Ninjago Movie also predated the phenomenon which The LEGO Movie became, though it was seized upon early enough in its production to be rebuilt in order to try to latch onto it.  And so, despite having only a marketing campaign and a studio to connect it with either The LEGO Movie or 2017's other LEGO follow-up, The LEGO Batman Movie (which at least presented itself as a sideways continuation, or perhaps an Elseworlds tale), LEGO Ninjago tacks toward the Lord & Miller style anyway—Lord & Miller themselves having been invited during the development process to produce, Warners evidently hoping that their je ne sais quoi would somehow rub off.  With a full-on army of writers (just the credited ones outnumber the  major characters, and LEGO Ninjago has a panoply of major and semi-major characters), and with probably more directors than even a animated feature should have, all involved did their level best to reproduce the magic of The LEGO Movie in a slightly new idiom.  This turned out to be very hard, especially in the context of a film that is (at a fundamental level) a toy advertisement, and even movies that had much better chances didn't quite succeed: LEGO Batman, a fine cartoon in many respects, managed to replicate Lord & Miller's desconstuctionist tendencies pretty well, only to fail (and fail pretty hard) whenever it had to emphasize its LEGOness; even The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, produced and written by Lord & Miller, only mostly manages to get it right.  LEGO Ninjago spends enough of its time getting it wrong that "getting it wrong" is constant background noise.  This is true, even though it's the one that, on paper, seems like it could've been the spin-off to get it the most right.

Anyway, it's not all bad—"the worst" is a relative thing here—and one thing that's eminently agreeable about LEGO Ninjago is that its origins make it by far the most coherent and self-contained film in its franchise, taking place in a comparatively solid, workable universe, that is only broken in strategic and clever ways, rather than descending into (e.g.) LEGO Batman's swirling cyclone of intellectual property.  The world it finds, of course, is Ninjago, a quasi-East Asian beachside metropolis that has had the misfortune to have been built right next to the volcano lair of the orientalized supervillain Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who has dedicated what seems to be, going by facts revealed later, the last 16 or 17 years of his life to attempting to conquer Ninjago with his army of  humorously-oppressed henchmen.  Opposing them, though certainly only for the past couple of years at most, is a league of mech-piloting ninjas, themed according to the six elements—Fire, Ice, Candy, Slime, Water, Lightning, Earth, and, er, Green, this last one being the sigil of our central teen hero, whose secret identity, Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), makes him the son of his sworn archnemesis, and, by dint of his shameful parentage, the target of all Ninjago's resentment toward his father despite that father barely being able to remember who he is.  The ninja team has trained long under aging (checks notes) spinjitzu master (is that right?), Wu (Jackie Chan).  But Lloyd chafes under his restrictions, which is how during one of Garmadon's weekly assaults upon the city, he goes against his master's warnings, digs out Wu's "Ultimate Weapon," and brings a doom upon Ninjago that, ultimately, he'll have to accept the help of his evil father to fix.  Cue emotional beats.

Well, it fits the franchise's formula, anyway: obvious tropes made comedic by dint of them being made explicit in virtually every line of dialogue, the tropes in this case being Star Warsish daddy issues alongside more generic problems with fitting in, which, of course, slots LEGO Ninjago snugly enough against The LEGO Movie.  Though when Franco tells you he wept while recording his scenes with Theroux, you do realize he's messing with you, right?

LEGO Ninjago mostly continues the franchise tradition of its comedy actually being funny, and sometimes it's very, very funny—if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I make a listicle of the Top Ten Best LEGO Franchise Moments or whatever, LEGO Ninjago would get at least one, and pretty dang high up, too—seriously, like "#3 or 4"—when it reveals precisely what its "Ultimate Weapon" summons.  That's geneuinely great, and an unappreciated way it's great is that you realize, only seconds before the movie demonstrates its power, what the Weapon actually, physically is, but those seconds of dawning glee are wonderful.  This moment shares with the best of the rest of LEGO Ninjago's humor a conceptual and visual basis; everything else here that's remotely great is in some way like it, like a splitscreen gag, or the unending and physically-implausible barrage of missiles vomiting forth from Lloyd's giant robot, or a blast-cut montage of fake chop-socky flicks—in other words, things that actually recall that LEGO Ninjago is supposed to be a blenderized and culturally-indistinct parody of East Asian B-cinema and things inspired by East Asian B-cinema, ranging from Shaw Bros films to Japanese tokasatsu shows to mecha anime to American knock-offs.  (The culturally-indistinct part is conceivably kind of a problem; at the very least, an indication that less love and knowledge went into this parody than, for example, the parody of Batman that runs throughout the other three LEGO films.  Even so, it's still the source of most of the best jokes, and doesn't necessarily feel unloving or unknowledgeable.)

Unfortunately, the balance of LEGO Ninjago's comedy (the vast majority, probably) is taken up with staler dialogue-driven jokes, like reducing Garmadon from a demon to a harried manager or an absentee suburban parent, depending on the precise function of the scene (and who, for some reason, appears to be trying to do an impression of Will Arnett's Batman).  This is the mainstay, existing alongside puns and outright non sequiturs, which include most of the song cues.  Quality varies: Wu's flute solo'd "Hard Knock Life" is pretty excellent (though the dissolve-heavy montage it plays through makes it feel more like it's actually in the former category of "martial arts cinema parody").  It tends to work well enough, but it's mostly stuff the Austin Powers films already did better, ages ago, and the worst of it is genuinely damaging and terrible, especially a film-long running gag in which Garmadon insists his son's name is pronounced "Luh-loyd," a thing which tends to make every single scene at least partway obnoxious, and, as far as I can tell, never even arrives at the holy moment I presumed it was going to plagiarize from The Last Crusade.  ("Indiana... let it go.")  Rather, LEGO Ninjago concludes with sentiment stacked atop sentiment, so gooey and longwinded about it you start to assume it's a joke.  Astonishingly, it isn't; it just isn't good.

Meanwhile, this film's cast could have probably been pared down to three people and nobody would have noticed.  Lloyd's ninja teammates (Michael Pena! Kumail Nanjiani! Fred Armisen! two people I've never heard of!) are so anonymous you might find yourself annoyed on behalf of the show's professional voice actors, who, under the circumstances, might as well have gotten the paycheck instead of the movie stars.  They're here to be objects, mostly, and the best it ever does with them is remembering that in the show Ice Ninja Zane (Zach Woods) is a robot, which is apparently a secret.  This intermittently manifests in the kind of fun obviousness all the LEGO movies traffick in, at least until the cute ambiguity is resolved and/or the screenplay forgets he was hiding his metallic identity.  Fair enough: the fact of their secret identities as high school students is something the film cares about so little I'm surprised it bothers establishing it.

Speaking of things the movie absolutely does not care about, there's its live-action framing sequence, evidently nothing but an excuse to get Chan on screen in the flesh.  It involves some loser kid wandering into the shop from Gremlins and getting a life lesson about standing up to bullies, or something, and it couldn't possibly connect less with the theme that the film actually explores; one presumes it's because although The LEGO Movie taught us that the problem of your dad not letting you play with his toys is maybe the one familial problem that can be solved by playing with toys, "my father lives on the other side of the bay and doesn't love me" can't.  A LEGO film that actually engaged with the escapism of fantasy and the bitterness of reality (not to mention what it means to be more concerned with the father who isn't there than the mother (Olivia Munn) who is) would be interesting; but it's not on-brand.  It's the worst thing in the movie by a mile, constantly sitting there in the back of your mind and reminding you that the animated middle is pointless in context; and it even somewhat ruins the best thing about the movie, which is that, of all the LEGO films, this one's the most plausible as a one-to-one representation of childhood play, with a story that mostly makes sense and (more importantly) makes sense in the right ways, with the action sticking to a single universe, its anachronisms and jokes still being mostly credible as arising from a kid's imagination.

Perhaps because of this, it's not in any sense a true failure, though it becomes less and less enjoyable the longer it goes on (as the twist on Wu's Ultimate Weapon suggests, it peaks almost painfully early).  It's the weakest of the LEGO films as cinema, with editing that sometimes turns the action into a slurry, and, while still fun to look at, it's somehow never as boldly and poppily colorful or as careful with lighting or framing as its franchise-mates; oddly, the water and fire in this LEGO movie are real (that is, CG) water and fire, a decision that seems completely unmotivated and I suppose represents no more than a change for change's sake at Animal Logic, or maybe they just wanted to demonstrate they could render fluid, flames, smoke, etc.  Anyway, it's blatantly the weakest as a comedy.  It's even the weakest as an emotion machine—that might be the biggest gap of all.  (Even LEGO Batman's feelings felt real, as opposed to the unadorned building blocks of a DUPLO screenplay.)  But it has its compensations, and it's okay.

Score: 6/10

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