When Phil Lord and Chris Miller turned animation on its head with “The LEGO Movie” in 2014, they proved you could successfully make a punk rock hero’s journey that was both reverential and iconoclastic. This year Chris McKay expanded into Gotham with “The LEGO Batman Movie,” and Charlie Bean takes a naturalistic turn with his martial arts brick adventure, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” Despite embracing different genres, they are variations on family, friendship, and self-discovery.
“When I first saw ‘The LEGO Movie,’ I thought this was so different and so cool,” said Bean, who makes his feature debut after helming the “Tron Uprising” animated series. “It was a garage band type of aesthetic. It doesn’t care about the rules. It can be live-action, it can use different graphic design. We can break the rules and do whatever we want. It’s funnier, more brash, and, at the same time, it has a tremendous amount of heart and emotion.”
Establishing a More Organic World
Except with “Ninjago,” Bean had established LEGO canon to play with in the form of martial arts and a father-son conflict. Master Builder Lloyd/Green Ninja (Dave Franco) battles his dad, warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who keeps destroying the city of Ninjago in an attempt to take it over. Joining the crime fighter are secret ninja warriors who fight with sophisticated mechs voiced by Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson, and Zach Woods. However, they’re taught by Master Wu (Jackie Chan), Garmadon’s older and wiser brother, to abandon their tech weaponry and fight with their inner powers.
“Loyd discovers that his father isn’t just a villain, he’s multi-faceted,” said Bean. “They need each other to fill an emotional void. We go into the natural, real world to strip away the armor so they can discover their true identities.”
This necessitated more complex world building from Australia-based Animal Logic, which upped its massive digital brick library, going bigger and further. Ninjago is a non-linear, layered vertical city with lots of Asian influences, There’s not a straight-line anywhere. Plus it sits on a mystical island with real-world elements (including 254 unique species of plant life). “We’re lensing to miniatures,” Bean said. “We spent a lot of time looking at LEGO and the detail and did the same thing with miniature plants and getting the textures right.
At the same time, the animation unit got to perfect brick-style martial arts fighting with the mini-figs, choreographed by Chan and his stunt team. “Jackie always knows how to lean into something to make it funnier,” Bean said.
“Because of the types of films that these are, you have an opportunity to be really broad,” added Bean. “It’s a Muppet type of animation and we can go really big with that. And we pushed the animation team to go the other way with very small, nuanced type of acting out of these faces. The limitations ultimately become your friend.”
Tapping Nostalgia and Coming of Age Stories
In a larger sense, the LEGO franchise taps nostalgia and rites of passage for a new, tech-savvy generation. “We always start from the inside with the most emotional, hooky thing that’s going to make you feel,” said “Ninjago” producer Chris McKay, who applies the same credo to his upcoming live-action “Nightwing” about Dick Grayson/Robin leaving Batman and becoming a vigilante.
“This is going to be a way different, action-packed, superhero movie,” McKay said. ” It’s going to rely very little on CG, it’s going to be a visceral ride in camera, and it’s going to require a lot of the actors and crew.”
For producer Dan Lin (“It”), the LEGO franchise deals in coming of age stories about friendship, loyalty, and evil. “There’s an internal logic to these movies where we’re going to different houses of kids on a street and how they’re playing with LEGOs,” Lin said. “One is playing in the adventure, ‘Matrix’ genre, one is playing in the superhero genre, one is playing in the martial arts, giant robot genre. It’s a way for us to keep the stories fresh and innovative and make them all look and feel different.”
Looking ahead, in “The LEGO Movie 2” (February 8, 2019), directed by Mike Mitchell (“Trolls”), brother and sister share imaginations in coping with a post-apocalyptic world and in combating aliens from the planet Duplon. And in the standalone racing adventure, “Billion Brick Race,” directed by Jorge Gutierrez (“The Book of Life”), there will be a decidedly Mexican vibe.
“I see LEGOS almost like a new medium in animation,” said Gutierrez. “The limitations challenge you and, frankly, free you to try things you never could have imagined. I honesty couldn’t refuse the invitation to play in this creative sandbox. The heartfelt and crazy things we’re going for in ‘BBR’ are going to melt people’s eyeballs!”