Poorly assembled 'Lego Ninjago Movie' waters down Lego movie franchise

A scene from "The Lego Ninjago Movie." (Warner Bros.)
A scene from "The Lego Ninjago Movie." (Warner Bros.)
Published September 20 2017
Updated October 13 2017

Well, that didn't take long.

After only three movies, the Lego franchise is already a shadow of its original self, less irreverent and go-for-broke bricky. The watering down of an ingenious formula comes with The Lego Ninjago Movie, the sort we expected all along from plastic construction toys.

Everything was awesome in 2014's The Lego Movie, a high-wire risk paying off with a new look in computer animation based on Lego's interlocking design. The Lego Ninjago Movie hasn't abandoned that uniqueness but certainly reins it in.

Fewer backgrounds utilize the malleable brick effect, opting for typical CGI trappings. The original even turned oceans into rolling squares; here the water is a computer-drawn yawn. The first movie brought an element of surprise. Now the surprise is that there are none.

Lego Ninjago is a toy and animation branch based on Asian action genres and those inspired by them, from medieval martial arts to Pacific Rim's Jaeger bots. The island of Ninjago is protected by six color-coded teenage power rangers — excuse me, ninjas — from evil warlord Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), who's like Darth Trump, literally firing generals from his volcano lair.

Ninjas keep their identities secret. The green one is Lloyd (Dave Franco), whom everyone at school knows is Garmadon's son, making him amusingly unpopular. His protective mother Koko (Olivia Munn) and Garmadon have a simple-except-it's-toys history, with revelations slowing down the third act.

Garmadon's latest attack on Ninjago sends Lloyd to Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who speaks of an Ultimate Weapon that could defeat the warlord but is too dangerous to use. Turns out it's a laser pointer that summons Meowsra, the funniest sight gag in the entire movie. Meowsra is a live action cat demolishing the sets while chasing the little red dot. Godzilla help me, it's overused but funny every time.

Lloyd's strained relationship with Garmadon is the screenplay's most consistently developed element, with Franco and Theroux doing funny work. Stretching the Skywalker dynamic to its silliest extreme, there's a wistful edge to what is essentially mocking child abandonment. It's funny in a grownup way that likely sailed over most kids' heads at a recent screening.

Children seemed content with various uses of the word "butt" and action sequences that could pass for Transformers outtakes. That's what happens to the Lego look when the action demands pulling back the camera for scope.

There's an irregular rhythm to The Lego Ninjago Movie, possibly due to six screenwriters and three directors stirring the pot. Amusing ideas can spring from committee but are seldom executed well by one. The Lego Movie was crafted as if there would never be another. Whatever the franchise targets next, my best advice is going back to square one.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.