“The Lego Ninjago Movie” has finally fulfilled the promise of the entire “Lego Movie” franchise, the promise that the two previous entries completely failed to live up to: That is, it’s the first one to actually be a bad movie.
By all accounts, no movie based on an expensive toy brand -- featuring both pre-existing and now-existing real-life toy products as characters and props -- should work. But surprisingly, “The Lego Movie” showed up in 2014 with a cleverly constructed concept that was both intelligent and earnest. It was fresh.
Coming after that breakout success, the 2017 spin-off “The Lego Batman Movie” seemed to have even more odds stacked against it, but the filmmakers managed to surpass expectations -- if not quite live up to the first film -- by keeping a similar comedic tone and animation style. “Lego Batman” also worked as a legitimate (and exceptional) entry in the superhero genre while also winningly deflating the the inflated self-importance that has been growing with each new retread of the formula.
Now here we are -- and still in the year of our Lego 2017 -- and Warner Brothers has restocked a new shipment of the “Lego” franchise with “The Lego Ninjago Movie.” The story also feels like a restocked product: There’s a fractured father-son relationship between a young (white, male) hero and the (male -- strangely black? -- voiced-by-a-white-actor) villain. (Come to think of it, never before have I been so curious and confused about the racial background of Lego characters. This movie features a number of different accents all coming out of plastic heads colored with the same yellow hue.)
The father-son, villain-hero setup is just like in the 2014 version, which put Will Ferrell in the role of villain/father, but this time, there’s considerably less nuance. Unlike its predecessors, “Lego Ninjago” doesn’t have any surprise tricks up its sleeve.
It might have had Jackie Chan. Well, it does technically have Jackie Chan, but it doesn’t give him much to do, and it utilizes none of his famous visual panache in the action sequences. The movie uses his image and brand like it does all of the Asian iconography in the film: as decoration.
As irreverent as they may have been, the previous two “Lego” entries were unafraid to be grounded in emotional -- even sentimental -- earnestness.
They reflected the qualities of the best episodes of “The Simpsons”: a sharp wit, sarcastic humor, but with genuine emotion at the core of the narrative. I’ll still never see The Joker the same way again after I saw the believably tearful plastic version voiced by Zach Galifianakis. And the genius of the first “Lego” movie was that it capitalized on the emotionally rich potential of the toys themselves: That is, the joy of imagination and the way creative play can both threaten and bolster relationships.
Any trace of “The Simpsons” has been replaced by “Family Guy,” with an excess of non-sequitur and “meta” humor masquerading as wit. “Ninjago” is just as frenetic and confident as the first two “Lego” entries, but nowhere as substantial.
It’s not that no attempt is made at genuine emotion in “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” but that it’s all false. The final act is downright sappy. It doesn’t feel true because it isn’t built on anything other than cheap archetypal shortcuts -- the kind that the first “Lego” movie could playfully comment intelligently on even as it utilized them.
With the speed that these “Lego” movies have come out, it seems the universe was unflinchingly determined to give us the “Lego” movie that we all expected: a cheap, cynical commercial. It finally succeeded. I hope we’re all happy.
And I hope we’re proven wrong again on the next one.
Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
Vocal cast: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Olivia Munn, Jackie Chan
Running time: 1 hour, 40 min
Rating: PG for some mild action and rude humor