For the first time in the history of the LEGO cinematic universe, everything is not awesome. The LEGO Ninjago Movie hit theaters last Friday and the movie did not enjoy the same financial or critical success of the previous LEGO films. It barely earned $20 million over its first weekend, making less than The Emoji Movie, a movie that nobody on Earth liked. Ninjago currently holds a 51 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is more than 40 percent lower than either of the previous LEGO movies. Why did Ninjago fail to connect with audiences? There are plenty of reasons, but mostly because it was a mediocre movie made by a group of people who have made a lot of very good movies. There’s always the temptation to draw wider conclusions (Lego is bad now!), but it’s unclear if Ninjago bodes poorly or even at all.
The plot of Ninjago is simultaneously boring and confusing as hell, but here is a quick attempt at a comprehensive and coherent explanation. Our main character, Lloyd, lives in the city of Ninjago, where he is not very popular due to the fact that he is the son of Garmadon, an evil lord who frequently tries to take over the city. Garmadon’s efforts are always thwarted by the Secret Ninja Force, which is really Lloyd and a bunch of his friends. One day, Lloyd attempts to defeat Garmadon once in for all with the help of “The Ultimate Weapon.” Things go wrong, evil prevails, and Lloyd must lead the Secret Ninja Force to victory against Garmadon while also learning an important lesson about himself along the way.
Given that summary, it should come as little surprise that the movie seems to exist largely because a studio exec though people would want to watch LEGO ninjas do cool stuff. That’s not wrong, but it’s also not enough to justify the runtime.
The thinness of Ninjago wouldn’t be so obvious if it weren’t for the other LEGO movies it follows. The original LEGO Movie was a surprise hit because it managed to escape the standard formula and tell a story that felt surprising, original, and fun. The LEGO Batman Movie had a similar effect, hilariously skewering the superhero genre while also subtly emphasizing the importance of opening yourself up and caring about others. But Ninjago sadly feels like a stale, paint-by-numbers version of what audiences have come to expect from the LEGO cinematic universe.
In many ways, Ninjago hits all the notes that made LEGO movies so popular and beloved in the first place. A healthy blend of absurd observations, visual gags, and, of course, plenty of meta jokes. A positive message hiding underneath the endless barrage of jokes and action. But this time, it feels like the movie is going through the motions. There’s no innovation or excitement to capture the viewer’s imagination. Perhaps it’s just the nature of diminishing returns, but the humor feels less innovative, the characters less memorable, and the morals less nuanced.
There’s still a lot to like in Ninjago. The loaded cast delivers across the board, as pretty much everyone manages to bring their plastic characters to life with hilarious, energetic performances. Jackie Chan especially stands out as Master Wu, the leader of the Secret Ninja Force who is armed with a clever quip every time he opens his mouth. The visuals are as stunning as audiences have come to expect from LEGO movies and some of the action sequences are every bit as good as whatever they’re doing in the latest Marvel movie. Ninjago is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, just an underwhelming one. And in the unforgiving world of children’s cinema, underwhelming is just about the worst thing a movie can be.