Thursday, 12 October 2017

The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) - Movie Review

With the current furore going on concerning the state of Hollywood and the products it’s creating, I figure I’d turn this into a little experiment. The Emoji Movie et al. is getting people to realize just how cynical the system can get, the general reactions to Mother show that even filmmakers willing to make the effort aren’t getting respected, and the recent unearthing of the heinous behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, one of the most prolific producers in the business, is bringing the questioning to a moral level; we’re in a weird and possibly disastrous spot right now.

So, I’m going to use this and my next review as the ultimate decider: Based on how these two films turn out, I will end up making my mind up about whether or not we are truly in a dark place concerning mainstream cinema. The next two reviews will be follow-ups to films that were massively successful as well as among some of the best their respective years had to offer; if the system shows that it can’t even repeat past successes, then I’ll know that we’re in a bad spot. To start off, let’s look at the latest installment of a franchise that has managed to keep pretty consistent in audience engagement: The LEGO movies.
For those just joining us, I’ve made my opinion on the original movie and LEGO Batman rather clear: Amazing animation, great senses of humour, and while not perfect in terms of writing and narrative, they show a serious understanding of the pop culture elements that they play around with. Now, not even a year removed from the last one, we have a new one based on the toy line Ninjago. I know next to nothing about the line’s initial quality, so I won’t pretend to and just get right into this.

The plot: On the surface, Lloyd (Dave Franco), Kai (Michael Peña), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Zane (Zach Woods) and Cole (Fred Armisen) are just regular high school students. However, when Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) attacks the city, they become a powerful team of ninjas led by Master Wu (Jackie Chan). As Garmadon plans once again to take over the city of Ninjago, Lloyd and his team prepare to stop him… which may prove awkward as Lloyd is also Garmadon’s son.

Third verse, same as the first two, in terms of the name recognition of the cast. Shame that the actual recognition doesn’t ring true this time, though. None of the supporting cast, comprised of some pretty damn good comedic actors, manage to engage on any real level, a side effect of the writing but all in good time. Franco as our lead is embarrassingly bland, hitting the daddy issues button over and over again for his dialogue and never managing to making it sound notable or even necessary. Theroux as the bad guy, and arguably the real main character, is okay in that he’s the usual joyous bad guy we’ve come to expect from this series, but again, not that fun to watch on-screen. Jackie Chan as Master Wu is a good casting choice but, between his character’s lack of relevance to the main plot and his appearance in the jarring live-action introduction, he is woefully underutilised.

We’re still dealing with Animal Logic, so same appraisals apply: The animation quality is solid, with lots of attention to detail and the same sense of reckless freedom in the set pieces. Unfortunately, there’s a definite lack of a spark in comparison to the previous LEGO ventures and even with other action films from this year. When dealing with ‘ninjas’ using giant battle robots to save the day, Rule Of Cool should apply here but it never ends up reaching that point. If I had to guess, it’s because not a whole lot of what we see feels cohesive with its self. This is a weird statement, considering the free-for-all of LEGO Batman that had Batman fighting Voldemort and Dracula, but at least that felt like the pieces fit together.
Here, because of the wild array of influences (Old-school martial arts movies, giant monster movies, even a touch of Power Rangers) and the lack of detail given to their respective places in this world, it fails to come across like a production where everything is meant to fit together. Given the inherent freedom of the source toy system, there’s some degree of argument to be made that this is precisely the point, but since the other films managed to get that same point across without this much dissonance, it feels like a shadow of what came before it. Because of this, as much fun as it seems on paper to watch ninja-piloted mechs fight against a giant cat, it never engages as much as the subconscious says that it should.

There’s also a serious problem here with repetition, beyond simply echoing what came before it in the LEGO series, that ends up sabotaging a lot of the comedy. Because of the incredibly limp writing (which coming from a writer’s room this crowded is rather odd), the characters we are given essentially have a singular joke or character trait that gets repeated ad-nauseum. Lloyd is the main one with daddy issues, Kai is associated with fire (and yes, it is seriously that vague), Jay is a wimp, Nya is the token girl, Zane is an android and Cole has a robot powered by turntables; repeat those same points with little variation, particular with Zane’s intentionally weak attempts to hide that he’s an android that are less funny and more irritating, and you have the bulk of the humour. 
Lord Gormadon is the closest to actual humour we get character-wise, and even then it’s largely by poking fun at the Evil Overlord List in quips that have no doubt been uttered countless times before. Where this gets worse, aside from the conspicuous absence of the same attention to sight gags as before, is that there are even exchanges where we just get the same joke retold over and over again for the entire scene. A lot of Lloyd and Lord’s interactions amount to this, pushing familial disconnect for all its worth until it’s just a pile of fine powder still being crushed under the heel of each monotonous one-liner. But at least we get this much early on; by the half-way point, the film seemingly gives up entirely and just sticks to the Hero’s Journey without even bothering to engage, even through mild annoyance.

It is with this that the film’s biggest problem comes to light: At only the third film in, they are already starting to backtrack. What made the original movie and Batman as good as they were, besides the fantastic production values, was that they were incredibly willing to make fun of anything and everything within reach. With Batman, it was full of bits that paid tribute to the character’s insanely-long legacy and poked fun at the holes within. With the first movie, it not only engaged in the usual rapid-fire slapstick, it also mocked the living hell out of the standard three-act story structure, delivering a message that managed to far exceed whatever dregs of personal empowerment the standard usually aspires to.
Here, all of that is played dead straight; no tongue-in-cheek approach, just a standard story involving a hero who must overcome his own ego to become the hero his home needs. Hell, with how scattered the plot gets, we’re not even sure who that is meant to apply to between Lloyd and Lord. In a better movie, that confusion could have led to a statement involving the nature of heroes and villains that not only would be in keeping with the series ethos but I’m more than positive that this studio and these creators could pull off. Instead, rather than providing the usual welcome reprieve from the norm, this just slots right into the assembly line and comes out incredibly dull in the process. What made the other LEGO movies so good, their willingness to kick back and have fun with the proceedings, is noticeably absent here, instead just feeling like your standard kid-friendly action-adventure flick.

All in all, it is genuinely depressing how lame this is. Weak acting combined with not-even-sure-what-it’s-trying-to-say writing end up overriding the still-commendable animation quality to create a story that is not only barely engaging, but ends up actively going against what has made the LEGO movies as well-regarded as they are. Even with the knowledge that we still got at least one good LEGO movie this year, it still isn’t enough to convince that this film has any real reason to exist outside of name-brand recognition. In that regard, it ends up validating a lot of the initial fears for the original film, that being a rather soulless cash-in branding deal. With any luck, this series will sidestep this blunder for greener pastures, but with my initial experiment in mind, things are certainly not looking good right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment