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Witty 'Lego Ninjago Movie' is a fun take on martial arts epics

POSTED September 22, 2017 6:01 a.m.
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“THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE” — 3 stars — Voices of Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Michael Pena, Zach Woods, Abbi Jacobson, Kumail Nanjiani; PG (mild action and some rude humor); in general release

The third Lego movie may face the biggest challenge of the toy series so far, since unlike its predecessors, "The Lego Ninjago Movie" doesn’t offer audiences the chance to see their favorite pop culture characters in Lego form.

Rather, "Lego Ninjago" feels like a martial arts movie interpreted through the campy, witty lens of the Lego franchise. Directed by a trio of helmsmen (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan), it's based on an existing Lego toy line and set in an island paradise — Ninjago — that is the eternal focal point of a good vs. evil struggle for supremacy.

Team Evil is led by Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), a black-clad, four-armed warlord who behaves like a comic book supervillain. He lives in a classic villain lair built into a menacing, perpetually flowing volcano, where he’s surrounded by a revolving door of generals who he dispatches for crossing him. Garmadon is possessed by a vicious determination to conquer Ninjago and rule it as his own, but as the story progresses, we come to realize that his motives are more personal and less megalomaniacal.

The only reason Garmadon hasn't succeeded in conquering Ninjago is because an energetic team of secret ninjas has managed to thwart his various invasions. Each secret ninja is color coded to a specific natural element, like fire or ice. Their leader is the Green Ninja, a heroic warrior who also happens to be Garmadon's 16-year-old son Lloyd (Dave Franco).

The funny twist here is that while no one knows the Green Ninja is Lloyd, everyone knows that Lloyd is Garmadon’s son, which effectively makes "Lego Ninjago's" protagonist a 16-year-old pariah. No one seems to care that Lloyd and his mother Koko (Olivia Munn) live in Ninjago with no apparent affiliation with the warlord (their only contact is when Garmadon butt-dials Lloyd by accident); they just treat Lloyd like garbage anyway and blame him for all his father’s sins.

But the stasis of their struggle gets turned upside-down when Garmadon manages to unleash the Ultimate Weapon — a live-action cat the relative size of Godzilla — on Ninjago. While it's laying waste to the city, Lloyd and his team set off in search of the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon to counter it. Along the way, they encounter and even capture Garmadon, which leads to a curious plot twist as Lloyd and his father are forced to learn to understand one another.

Like 2014’s “Lego Movie,” "Lego Ninjago" is couched in a live-action context, in this case a Chinese gift shop run by Jackie Chan (who also appears in Lego form as Lloyd's white-bearded uncle and mentor Master Wu). It's a hero's quest that will feel familiar to moviegoers and will appeal to anyone with enough pop culture experience to catch all the satire.

"Lego Ninjago" does a great job of continuing the irreverent but kid-friendly sense of humor that has been employed to such great effect in previous films. There are obvious jokes on the surface and numerous in-jokes for in-the-know fans, such as a hilarious sequence that celebrates the well-known "Wilhelm Scream." The challenge is that where the “Lego Batman” movie had the Caped Crusader, and “Lego Movie” included a cast full of familiar (animated, plastic-looking) faces, "Lego Ninjago's" characters will be unfamiliar to a large portion of potential audience members and doesn't feel quite as engaging as those other films.

But even as a step down, "The Lego Ninjago Movie" is still a lot of fun and superior to the majority of animated options out there for the whole family.

“The Lego Ninjago Movie” is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor; running time: 101 minutes.

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