The LEGO Ninjago Movie came out about a month ago and it was, well, firmly okay. Like, it's not awful — it’s entertaining enough — but it never rises to the delightful postmodern heights of its predecessors. But it didn't have to. While The LEGO Movie toyed with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey by making the chosen one as un-special as possible, and The LEGO Batman Movie used the narrative of a love story to reframe the conflict of Batman and The Joker to craft a hilarious new take on the mythos, all The LEGO Ninjago Movie really had to do was tell a raucous adventure story. Which it kinda does, but it’s very safe, one couched in winks at the audience and a foot still safely in the boat, never taking the plunge.
It’s a shame, too, because The LEGO Ninjago Movie had so much in its hand, it just never went all in.
Let’s just look at the setting. We’ve got Ninjago City, this cyberpunk-by-way-of-future-Asia setting with elevated highways and really cool buildings. But we never get to really explore it. All of our time in the city is set against the backdrop of big fights, which, while cool, are hardly space to get to know a setting. Instead, once the plot begins in earnest, we’re whisked out to a much more generic jungle. And like, sure, a jungle’s a cool enough setting, but it lacks the idiosyncrasy of Ninjago City. Jungles are generic, whereas Ninjago City had this spiffy aesthetic that marked is as different from, say Bricksburg or Gotham from the other LEGO movies or even New York and Coruscant. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to rejigger the central plot to go from exploring the jungle to spelunking in the depths of Ninjago City. There’s more personality there and room for imagination, something the movie really could have used.
Because it plays it all so safe. We have this outstanding (and hilarious) cast who are mostly relegated to bit parts where they can offer commentary on the Quest At Hand. If Ninjago is gonna be a send up of typical adventure movies, then let the main characters be a bunch of savvy wiseacres taking the mickey out of the narrative. If it’s gonna be an actual adventure movie, then let it be that, with the silliness seeping in from all sides. But Ninjago couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and instead we have a normal adventure story that’s undercut by its love of winking at itself. There’s no commitment.
So let’s take The Princess Bride. It creates a delightfully silly world, replete with six-fingered men, Dread Pirate Robertses, and ROUSes, but with characters who are completely sold on it. Inigo Montoya searches for the six-fingered man, and though he’s a comedic supporting character, because he as a character is serious about it and because the narrative never ridicules his quest, he is given the ultimate catharsis when he eventually finds him. There’s no winking at the audience, where everything unfolding is an in-joke. Sure, it’s a silly world (there is a place called The Cliffs of Insanity) but because the characters are given a level of emotional honesty, the narrative feels whole.
Even Shrek 2 (objectively the best of the Shreks) treats its characters’ arcs with a great deal of respect. Yes, the movie absolutely skewers fairytales, particularly of the Disney variety, but the story of Shrek trying to fit into Fiona’s world is committed to wholeheartedly. As such we still have a great story in this bizarre world (that we also get time to explore).
A lot of its faults can be blamed on The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s absolutely frenetic pace. The movie barely slows down to give us a chance to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fast paced movie, but the movie barely ever fleshes out anything it has in play, never letting us just be in the space it’s created. It’s a rotten shame, too, because there was so much interesting at its fringes, so much mileage to be had with the banter between the characters, so much capacity for cool with some LEGO-ized martial arts action. Plus, you’ve got the Hero With an Evil Dad trope with the wonderful twist that everyone knows Garmadon is Lloyd’s father. But frustratingly, characters don’t fulfill arcs so much as they check off narrative beats. The movie never trusts its assets enough to capitalize on it, it never goes all the way.
Instead, well, we get something that’s just fine.