The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 9/26/17
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Cast: Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan, Olivia Munn

Ninjago City is under constant attack by the evil Garmadon (Justin Theroux), but a group of highly skilled teenage ninja warriors always manage to stop him. The leader of the group is Lloyd (Dave Franco), who incidentally happens to be Garmadon's estranged son. When Lloyd accidentally lets Master Wu's (Jackie Chan) ultimate weapon fall into Garmadon's hands, the defeated ninja warriors have to go on a dangerous mission of enlightenment to regroup, hone their warrior skills, and find an even more ultimate weapon.

The film is great as long as the characters aren't talking and you don't care about the story. Unlike the previous LEGO movies which were fun and zany, this one is a narrative mess and feels like a tedious and egregious ad for Ninjago toys. The plot is overly sentimental and the dysfunctional father/son theme that spoiled "The LEGO Movie" (2014) and "The LEGO Batman Movie" (2017) is completely overbearing this time around, which sucks all the fun out of the movie. The film is also firmly planted in reality, and the constant reminders of that are disruptive and break your emotional investment in the material. The film opens with a live action sequence, which ruins the fantasy element almost immediately. Why does it have to be a weepy morality tale about family values? Why can't it just be a fantasy action film that's built on creativity and imagination?

The voice acting is very good, despite the often cringe-worthy dialog. Jackie Chan plays the same character that he did in "Forbidden Kingdom" (2008), and serves as both narrator and ninja master. Dave Franco gives an excellent performance as an anguished teen who longs for having a proper father, and Olivia Munn is wonderful as his supportive, but exasperated mother. Justin Theroux steals the show as the clueless and obnoxiously evil Garmadon, but his performance is nearly identical to Will Arnett's LEGO Batman.

Thankfully, the animation is spectacular and the film is a total feast for the eyes. The lighting and textures are amazing, and in the same style as the previous LEGO movies. The action is frenetic and attempts to spoof the kung fu and kaiju movies of the 1960's and 1970's with varying degrees of success. The first five seconds of the film do a fantastic job of evoking the spirit of classic Hong Kong cinema, but it fails to follow through on that promise. It's a shame that the story and dialog come across like a family counseling session, which leaves a bad taste.