Movie Review: 'Lego Ninjago'
One of the Big Disappointments of 2017
Lego Ninjago has not one single laugh. It has amusing moments but not a single instance of induced laughter. And I am not just speaking for myself here. The audience I watched Lego Ninjago with was really ready to laugh and you could hear some forced attempts at trying to laugh but as the movie went on even those that kept smiling and trying to find what was happening in Lego Ninjago funny weren’t laughing. It was strange; there was no outward disdain for Lego Ninjago but there weren’t any laughs.
Lloyd (Dave Franco) is a teenager who is constantly picked on because his father happens to be an evil ninja who keeps trying to take over his home town of Ninjago. What the people making fun of Lloyd don’t know is that he’s the legendary Green Ninja who, along with his fellow ninjas, have kept Garmadon (Justin Leroux) from actually destroying Ninjago. Naturally, regularly fighting his dad while flying around on a mechanized ninja dragon has led to more than a few daddy issues for Lloyd.
Thankfully, Lloyd has his uncle, Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who has taught him and his friends everything about being Ninjas and making giant mechanized animals that they use to battle Garmadon’s evil Crab army. Well, he has people dressed as crabs and dressed as sharks and dolphins and they make up his evil army; though at one point he does shoot sharks at people from a giant mechanical arm but that part isn’t very clear. I could follow the action well enough but some of the chaos got a little confusing.
All of that description sounds funny, right? Especially when you consider the recent history of the Lego franchise, The Lego Movie and Lego Batman. Those movies were laugh a minute spectacles that created an anticipation for future Lego movies. Like Lego Ninjago, those casts were overflowing with some of the funniest voices on the planet and Ninjago has a fair share of very funny people like Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Kumail Nanjiani, all of whom are remarkably funny.
So why isn’t Lego Ninjago funny? It doesn’t make sense. The trailer had funny scenes that aren’t in the movie. The tone is quite silly but why doesn’t it make me laugh like The Lego Movie or Lego Batman? I wasn’t unhappy during the film but I kept waiting throughout Lego Ninjago for the film to find the right tone and get into a funny groove and it just never happened. Lego Ninjago has only one gear and while it is often amusing and it keeps you engaged, it never rises to a level of actual funny.
The biggest problem is the voice acting which is all pitched at a level of nonchalance that might work for a single joke but not for every joke in the movie. The voice acting in Lego Ninjago doesn’t have any life or variety to it with only Jackie Chan standing out with any life in his voice. Sadly, Chan’s Master Wu isn’t a comic character; he’s meant to be relatively serious. The rest of the characters, including the main protagonist and antagonist, Lloyd and his dad, Garmadon, are all pitched at the same level of disaffection.
Lego Ninjago failingly crosses the disaffected tone of Generation X with the sincerity of Gen Y. That means that characters are all at a distance from their emotions even when those emotions are intended as sincere. It’s the main difference between Gen-X and Gen-Y: X was defined by an armor-like sarcasm that kept us safely at a distance from committing to an opinion while Gen-Y rejected Gen-X values by embracing honesty and sincerity. Attempting to combine them creates a tonal disconnect that satisfies neither side.
I can’t say that the combination of Gen-X and Gen-Y sensibilities was the intent of the creators of Lego Ninjago; rather my guess is that Gen-X people tried to understand Gen-Y appeal and missed the mark leaving us with a movie that is entirely tone-deaf. Characters repeatedly go through the motions of things that should be very funny but they come off so disaffected in tone that nothing has any meaning or life. Combine the tone problem with expectations built on the incredibly funny Lego Movie and Lego Batman and you have a Lego Ninjago that disappoints remarkably.