You probably know what LEGO are, and you probably know who Batman is (don’t say “Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s billionaire playboy”), and that brand awareness helped to propel 2015’s “The LEGO Movie” and this February’s “The LEGO Batman Movie” into massive hits that transcended their target audience, appealing equally to adults and children alike. On the other hand — and this is a scientific fact — not a single person who’s gone through puberty has ever heard of “Ninjago.” Ninjas? Sure. The concept of going? Absolutely. But “Ninjago”? That’s definitely not a real thing, let alone a popular line of toys that’s spawned graphic novels, video games, and a television show that’s now been on the air for six full seasons.
And yet, Warner Bros. continues to insists otherwise, the studio inexplicably dedicating the pivotal third film of their massive LEGO movie franchise to a property that most people can’t even pronounce correctly (it’s “Nin-JAH-go,” because the more obvious way of saying it might too strongly imply the inclusion of actual ninjas). They own the rights for everything from Harry Potter to Godzilla — not to mention the entire DC cinematic universe — and yet they went with a “Power Rangers” ripoff about some anonymous teenage block toys riding mecha dragons or something.
Good for them. In doing so, WB has shown that the LEGO saga can thrive without a superhero starting point (or the vocal talents of Chris Pratt). Every bit as irreverent, smart, and ridiculously entertaining as its predecessors, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” proves that these films are now on the brink of becoming a viable brand unto themselves; it cements them as the most consistently delightful franchise in the contemporary world of corporate animation. Nothing else comes close.
But seriously, where the hell are all the ninjas? And why does something with such explicitly Japanese origins open with a logo that riffs on the (Chinese) Shaw Brothers? Needless to say, anyone expecting “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” to be a historically accurate (or racially sensitive) experience may need to adjust their expectations — capitalism is the only culture that matters here, even if Lord Business is missing in action. The futuristic megalopolis of Ninjago wasn’t really built with specifics in mind; on the contrary, the whole thing is just kind of vaguely Asian, an opportunistic fusion of symbols and references that suggest a part of the world without meaningfully representing it. The cityscape is dotted with torii gates, swamped in kung fu tropes, and reverberating with white voices.
There are, however, a few exceptions to that rule. One of them is Kumail Nanjiani. Another is Jackie Chan — the martial arts legend shows up in his full glory, playing the owner of an exotic antique store in the film’s flat and wholly useless live-action framing device. But things pick up considerably soon after that, as a hyper daytime talkshow parody (complete with LEGO Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts) hurls us into the kind of frenetic cartoon world that fans of this franchise have come to expect. In fact, the mode here is so familiar that initial fears “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” will be watered down from the series’ previous incarnations are soon replaced by fears that it copies them too closely. Like “The LEGO Movie” and “The LEGO Batman Movie” before it, this one is all about daddy issues, its frequently hilarious script (credited to five different writers) once again internalizing the idea that families can be pulled apart and put back together.
Dave Franco voices Lloyd Garmadon, a lifelong outcast thanks to the fact that his absentee father, Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), keeps trying to conquer Ninjago with his army of replaceable generals and his bottomless stockpile of shark-themed weaponry. But Lloyd has a secret: He moonlights as the mysterious Green Ninja (a ninja in name alone), a key member of the resistance group that always saves the city from his old man. Other fighters in the group include Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Cole (Fred Armisen), and Zane (Zach Woods), the latter of whom is a robot for some reason. These characters merely have moments, not arcs. Their leader is the wise old Master Wu (Jackie Chan again), and he will eventually inspire his disciples to embark upon a dangerous journey in order to find the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon, which is needed to defeat the fearsome Meowthra after Lloyd accidentally summons the beast by using the ultimate weapon (just one “ultimate”) as part of a desperate attempt to subdue Lord Garmadon.
Meowthra, you should know, is a cat. Like… a regular, live-action cat who’s been inserted into a fully CG environment. To the citizens of Ninjago, he’s a giant Kaiju with paws capable of pulverizing entire city blocks; to us, he’s… a cat. The effect is laugh-out-loud funny literally every time. More than that, it continues the franchise’s brilliant tradition of conceiving its film worlds with the imagination of a kid playing with their toys; anyone who grew up with a pet will remember how intrusive an animal could be to an elaborate fantasy game, and how urgent it would then become to fold the creature into the narrative.
Although only the saddest and most neglected of children could have imagined a villain as callous as Lord Garmadon. Combining Darth Vader’s looks (and his parenting skills), Dr. Evil’s obsession with sharks (and his parenting skills), and Donald Trump’s complete antipathy towards all forms of life (and his parenting skills), Lord Garmadon is the same type of mega-narcissist that’s defined the other two LEGO Movies. At one point, Lloyd tells Lord Garmadon that he ruined his life, to which the evil warlord obliviously responds: “How could I ruin your life, I wasn’t even there.” That’s a fiendishly cold bit of dialogue that might hit a bit too close to home for a lot of viewers, but every line that Theroux delivers in this film is funny; even the lines that aren’t funny are funny. His sing-songy cartoon voice (similar to the one he busted out in “Wanderlust”) is a perfect fit for the tone of this franchise, and there’s a fine art to the way Theroux undersells the little things, like the fact that Lord Garmadon refuses to learn the correct pronunciation of his own son’s first name (he calls him “Luh-Loyed,” because he’s stumped by the double “l”).
If anything, Theroux and Franco make such a sweet team that it’s easy to overlook how flimsy the film’s emotional backbone can feel. There are all sorts of faux-inspirational ideas and cheap Hallmark sentiments scattered throughout this story of a father working with his estranged son to defeat the mighty Meowthra and save Ninjago, but most of them seem purely ornamental. There’s nothing here that captures the same emotional power of the Lord Business twist at the end of “The LEGO Movie,” or the depth of feeling that flows between the orphaned Bruce Wayne and his new sidekick in “The LEGO Batman Movie.” But neither of those films has a cat destroying a LEGO city, so let’s just call it even.
Also, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” compensates for the relative obscurity of its toy line by having the franchise’s most aggressively random sense of humor; you have to respect any kids’ movie that’s hiding a “Locke” joke up its sleeve. Yes, “Locke,” the one where Tom Hardy is just in his car the whole time. There’s definitely a fear that audiences could get burned out on the sarcastic style of sensory overload that has come to define Warner Bros’ animation behemoth, but when even the studio’s most seemingly ill-advised attempts are this much fun, it’s tough to imagine that people will start complaining anytime soon.
“The LEGO Ninjago Movie” opens in theaters on Friday, September 22.