The Lego Ninjago Movie

 

            Animated films create a certain emotional distance between the voice actors and their viewers, and Lego animation adds another layer of separation, because of the very stylized Lego art.  The characters look like square boxes with painted faces, and plastic circle-grips instead of hands.  And the animation art doesn't register facial expressions of the characters, either, so all the emotion has to come from the voices of the actors.

            Despite those self-imposed limitations, there's a lot to like about “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” especially the way it begins.  A “real” boy wanders into a curio shop full of fascinating trinkets, and benevolently presided over by a kindly Asian man (Jackie Chan), who doesn't fuss at the boy for handling items he hasn't bought.  Instead, the man tells the boy a story, about six kids who are school friends, but also secretly ninja warriors.  Their city, Ninjago, is threatened by the evil Garmadon (the voice of Justin Theroux), but they are guided by their Ninja teacher, Master Wu (the voice of Jackie Chan).  The kids also have a leader, Lloyd, the Green Ninja (the voice of Dave Franco), who suffers in high school because everyone knows that his Dad is the evil Garmadon.  What they don't know is that Lloyd is part of the Ninjas protecting the city, but things take a personal turn when Garmadon and Lloyd finally talk to each other about their own relationship, or lack thereof.

            This part might actually be a little sad for kids watching this whose parents are divorced.  We find out that Garmadon and Lloyd's mother, Koko (the voice of Olivia Munn) had a strong emotional bond for a while.  But Koko wanted to spend her energies raising their son, and Garmadon wasn't willing to invest his life in that, and so they divorced, and Lloyd finds himself resenting the fact that his Dad was never around, never taught him how to throw, or catch, or drive, much less how to be a Man in the world.  When Garmadon and Lloyd find themselves unexpectedly thrown together for a time, Lloyd isn't afraid to tell his Dad that his abandonment wasn't cool.  And yes, his Dad finally feels bad about it.

            But that little emotional breakthrough is short-lived, because we still have to save the city (from the evil giant cat, who keeps knocking over the legos?).  And it's not like the broken family gets together again (which wouldn't necessarily solve everything, anyway).  But at least now there's a line of communication open, but one can't help but wonder---what about the kid in the audience whose relationship with an absent parent doesn't show any signs of improvement?  Won't the viewing of this film be a bit bittersweet, despite the breezy cultural references and the cartoonish screenplay?

            Yes, it's fun, but not always lighthearted.  The Lego movies represent some really creative filmmaking, but this one seems to contain some hidden emotional barbs that are as unexpected as they are unnecessary.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What was your favorite toy as a kid?

2)                  Is there a non-family member in your life who has been a mentor to you?

3)                  Is there a non-family member who looks on you as a mentor?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association