The LEGO Ninjago Movie on the other hand feels like a funny joke that you've heard three times on the same night. It's still funny but lacks the surprise from the first time and the sense of being in the in-group the second time around. Now it's just forced laughter jumbled into the same chock-a-block world and lovingly wrapped around the same old themes of daddy issues and struggling to work as a team. Are LEGOs a generational symbol for latchkey kids and I just didn't know it?
Ninjago however seems geared towards the younger set. It takes the same setup as the TV show (I guess), pitting a group of color-coded ninjas with building-sized mech suits against an evil four-armed warlord named Garmadon (Theroux). The kicker is one of Ninjago's heroes; the enigmatic Green ninja (Franco) is secretly Garmadon son Lloyd. A fact that makes Lloyd a social pariah at his high school and morphs the plot from the expected mech v monster setup to one with more personal stakes.
The personal stakes vis a vis resentments and eventual reconciliation are arguably the best parts of the movie. The antagonizing father/son relationship provides the plot with much needed complexity and impetus while also landing some of the most unexpected jokes. One reoccurring gag involves Lloyd's inability to catch and throw because (sob) he never had a father to teach him. It's a gag approached with the franchise's trademark absurdist glee guaranteeing that the kids will be none the wiser, but the characterizations still hint at unspoken sadness that adults are likely to connect with.
The franchise further bolsters its "something-for-everyone" style by parodying Japanese tokusatsu tropes and characters that most will knowingly catch. The sextet of ninjas is of course color-coded and, of course is given elemental themes that fit their personalities. Much of their quest is informed by a wise master (Chan) who speaks vaguely about this and that and of course at some point there's a monster that rampages through the city. Instead of being sincere about these predictable tropes, in true LEGO fashion, the film undermines and lampoons them to variant levels of success.
But despite a few good setups, Ninjago can't help but feel like déjà vu. Stripped of its genre trappings, its specialty bricks and its unnecessary framing device with a live-action Jackie Chan, Ninjago is left with many of the same things that worked the last two times. i.e. a self-effacing heroes journey where the story's twists and turns boils down to a secret f**k you to absent fathers. Add to that the sneaking suspicion that I'm not just being sold LEGOs but Ninjago brand LEGOs and it becomes clear the glibness of the franchise as a whole is starting to show its shortcomings. As far as kids movies released this year, Ninjago is pretty much on par. But as far as Lego movies go, Ninjago is definitely the weakest link in the chain.