Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Painless But Messy LEGO Ninjago Movie Needed to Show More Discipline In It's Storytelling

Walt Disney once said "For every laugh, there should be a tear." A large swath of modern animated family movies have taken that axiom to hear, particularly the films made by PIXAR which frequently leave adults sobbing as much, if not more so, than their young offspring. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is an example of taking this saying too far, an odd occurrence given how well the other two LEGO movies (The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie) were at deftly mixing wacky humor with heart. But that's just happened, as this feature film adaptation of the LEGO Ninjago toys shoves far too many badly-executed attempts at tugging on the heartstrings into its story.

That flaw does feel appropriate for the rest of the story which too often feels like it's running at full speed to pack in every possible detail it can into its story. That story concerns Lloyd (Dave Franco), who is a resident of the city of Ninjago that is also High School student that has the alter-ego of the Green Ninja. He leads a ninja task force, comprised of five other High School students, against the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who is also, unbeknownst to Garmadon, Lloyd's father. The ninja's and Garmadon have a long-standing conflict together, but a hunt for an ultimate weapon hidden a nearby dangerous jungle will give Lloyd and his nefarious daddy a chance to get to know each other better and maybe, just maybe, get on better terms.

Yes, we have another American computer-animated family movie about a troubled father/son dynamic and one that's more Buck Cluck and Chicken Little than Marlin and Nemo in terms of garnering emotional investment. The main issue with Lloyd and Garmadon's relationship is one that plagues the whole movie; there's too much of an abrupt shift from the yuks to the tears, the moments of levity and the moments of pathos never co-exist peacefully. Lloyd and Garmadon have a heavily cartoonish hero/villain dynamic for the majority of the film, with Garmadon being a frequently amusing but fairly simple character, then early into act three we get an overlong scene where Garmadon just dumps out a bunch of exposition about how he met Lloyd's mom and why he never became a more attentive father.

It's meant to be a scene that imbues Garmadon with depth, but it comes off flat in execution, namely in the way that it doesn't feel like we haven't been building up to this moment at all, there haven't been brief glimpses of Garmadon's humanity to sow the seeds of this big emotional reveal. Even worse is a climax that entirely centers around Lloyd speaking directly to three different characters and spouting out extended monologues describing lessons he's learned along his journey. There's nary a joke to be found here and again, it feels like an overt attempt to wring sentimentality out of plot details that haven't even been set up properly. The LEGO Ninjago Movie wants to have its own version of sweeping emotional moments like the spirit of Mufasa communicating to his son, but it doesn't do any of the build-up necessary to make such moments work.

Too many attempts at forced pathos clutter up The LEGO Ninjago Movie and there's similarly an overdose of humor throughout the story. To be fair, The LEGO Ninjago Movie does succeed better as a comedy than it does as a drama, with a number of memorable comedic moments scattered throughout the story, especially in the vocals turns by Justin Theroux, lending nonchalant attitude to a four-armed evildoer, and Kumail Nanjiani. Unfortunately, too often it feels like The LEGO Ninjago Movie is just tossing out any kind of pop culture reference or manic joke it can think of in order to be frantic enough so that kids won't stop paying attention to the movie at hand rather than tossing out such elements because it thinks they're actually funny. 

There's really just too much going on here both in terms of the humor and the overall movie. So many plot points or details about the characters (namely, the fact that the six lead characters are in High School) are introduced and then fail to factor into the plot while none of the other five ninjas Lloyd works with get any kind of development, leaving talented actors like Michael Pena and Abbi Jacobson stranded in thankless roles. Just enough of the jokes work and the distinctive animation style of these LEGO movies is pleasing enough to make The LEGO Ninjago Movie, at worse, simply an aimless but painless feature, but it's startling to see such a scattered and messy project emerge from the shadows of the two prior LEGO movies. Movies about LEGO's can and deserve to be better than this. 

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