The LEGO Ninjago Movie Review

The LEGO Movie turned out to be a massive hit that was hugely popular with audiences both young and old. It’s no surprise that everybody involved wanted more of that success, so LEGO Batman got his own movie. Now the popular LEGO theme Ninjago gets the big screen treatment with The LEGO Ninjago Movie – in cinemas from today (no Australian delay this time).

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If you aren’t familiar with the world of Ninjago then don’t worry – this movie uses the setting and characters from the theme/show but it is a completely stand-alone story. I have only seen a few episodes of the television show myself and I had no problem understanding what was going on. It’s possible that there were some references that I may have missed but this isn’t a direct adaption or continuation of the show.

I won’t get in to detailed spoilers here, but I will discuss some basic plot points.

One thing I will say is that the opening scene of this film caught me completely off guard. It’s an opening that on reflection I really liked, but not at all what I was expecting. Some reviews have given this away so be careful if you are reading others.

Even though this is a standalone film it is not an origin story. It’s not Wu finding a group of teenagers with attitude and teaching them ninja skills. The “secret ninja force” is already established and there is a regularity to life in Ninjago City – Garmadon attacks, he is stopped by the ninjas, repeat.

Everybody knows that Lloyd is Lloyd Garmadon, and the fact that he is the son of an evil warlord is the basis of a lot of the early angst. High school is tough for a lot of people but when your dad literally tries repeatedly to take over the city then it gives the bullies a lot of ammo. The fact that Lloyd’s secret alter ego – the green ninja – is loved is a nice juxtaposition to that bullying.

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This is really Lloyd’s story. The other ninjas are all introduced very quickly and their backstories aren’t explored with any depth. As I said this isn’t the “coming together as a team” origin story. While the rest of the team don’t get detailed backstories their various powers are a plot point. Each member of the team has a different elemental power; Nya is the water ninja, her brother Kai is the fire ninja, Zane is the ice ninja, Jay’s element is lightning and Cole is the Earth ninja. Lloyd’s elemental power is “green”. Don’t worry, the fact that green isn’t an element is explored.

On the other side of the battle lines is Garmadon, who is just brilliant. He is cocky and mean but also charismatic and funny. For an absentee father who is literally evil he is surprisingly likeable. The voice work of Justin Theroux is outstanding. Garmadon’s aquatic themed army is also great with their awesomely designed outfits.

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Through various actions (that I can’t really explain without spoilers) the city comes under attack from a greater force than ever before – a cat called Meowthra. This results in the team having to go on a treacherous quest to find a powerful weapon.

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There are lots of different parts to the story of this film. If you have seen the sets from the film you know that there are some pretty cool mechs. Those mechs are awesome to see in action. In contrast there are also scenes set in lush jungles and fiery volcanos. There is also a fair bit of variance in the pacing – the first act is quite fast and frantic, but things slow down for the middle and third acts.

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What I really loved about this movie is something that was missing from the LEGO Batman Movie – the constant reminder that LEGO is a toy by bringing in real world elements. LEGO Batman was a Batman movie created with LEGO, but for the most part it could have been told in any other medium. This movie celebrates that LEGO minifigures are small and that they are toys. The fact that Meowthra is a real cat really drives that home. The jungle scenes that I mentioned all feature real plants and there is real water rather than the brick-built water seen in The LEGO Movie.

I will say that this movie is probably not the funniest of the LEGO movies. This isn’t a bad thing but if you go in expecting 100 minutes of joke after joke you will be disappointed. There are some absolutely hilarious exchanges and the jokes that are present all land well but there is also a lot of action and a surprising level of personal drama.

The heart of this story is the relationship between a child and his estranged father. It’s got a lot of heart. I’ll confess that I was legitimately fighting back tears towards the end.

I went in to this film not knowing a lot about Ninjago and having only seen the two trailers. I was surprised, moved and thoroughly entertained by the end. This movie is not perfect, there are some underdeveloped characters and a few clichés, but to an extent some of those complaints feel like nit-picking. This is a kids movie after all. There are things that it makes sense to have in a ninja movie, and those clichés often feel like they were included because they were clichés rather than out of laziness. There is a sense of homage to vintage kung-fu films.

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The cinematography here is also absolutely amazing. This is the third film in this style and it seems like they have perfected what they can do with the medium. There is one shot where Garmadon is standing looking out over Ninjago City with dark ominous smoke behind him. In the context of that particular moment in the story it’s an incredibly powerful image, and it’s absolutely stunningly rendered.

The action sequences are well directed and the influence of Jackie Chan’s stunt team in the fight choreography shows. Animated fight scenes can end up being just a blur of colour and movement but there is a good physicality to things here.

What I really loved is something that made the LEGO Movie one of my favourites – this is unashamedly a LEGO movie. It doesn’t ignore the fact that LEGO is a toy. It plays up that. If you’ve seen the trailer you will know that at one point Lloyd loses an arm. The way that plays out wouldn’t be possible if they shied away from the LEGO-ness of it all.

If you enjoyed the LEGO Movie at all then go and see the LEGO Ninjago Movie.

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