“When are the Wegos coming on?” the young boy sitting next to me asked his father. His impatience was reasonable enough. Here we were, five minutes into “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” gazing at a live-action prologue with Jackie Chan, a kid and a cat in a store full of exotic knickknacks.
Soon enough, the Wegos awwived, and the latest installment in a nearly foolproof franchise was underway, a fast-moving mélange of brazen corporate promotion, winking pop-culture cleverness and earnest lesson-learning. I realize that makes this movie sound indistinguishable from nearly every other piece of family-targeted animated big-screen entertainment out there, and I’m sorry to report that the Lego movie enterprise has lapsed into intentional mediocrity.
This is especially disappointing given the conceptual wit, visual flair and bonkers imagination of “The Lego Movie” and the sweet silliness of “The Lego Batman Movie.” “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan from a script with an army of credited authors, attaches itself to some of the tropes and images of Asian action cinema with sloppy affection. Mr. Chan, who voices a wise and venerable teacher in addition to playing the wise and venerable shopkeeper, doesn’t really belong to the ninja genre. But neither do the young fighters who protect the city of Ninjago from an evil four-armed warlord named Garmadon, voiced by Justin Theroux. They prefer big, noisy machines to stealth, guile and swordsmanship.
Garmadon, who wants to be a mayor, is a megalomaniac whose regular assaults on peace and normalcy are breathlessly covered by the news media and whose favorite pastime is firing his underlings. His estranged teenage son, Lloyd (Dave Franco), is ostracized and mocked for being the child of such a monster. But Lloyd, whose alter ego is the Green Ninja, works behind the scenes to check his father’s worst tendencies. Does every movie have to be a political allegory now? Can’t we just have fun?
Not as much as we’d like to. The Lego figures are rendered with playful rigor; their limited movements and expressions generate some amusing sight gags. But the physical world they inhabit is more of a generic digital-cartoon space than a snapped-together environment. And the themes they explore are tired, cynical, sub-Disney bromides about family reconciliation and self-discovery.
A dollop of mawkish sentiment is to be expected in this kind of movie. “The Lego Ninjago Movie” applies it in gluey globs, freezing the action so that Lloyd and Garmadon can work out their issues. For whose benefit? Children are unlikely to be captivated by this unconvincing melodrama of abandonment and reconciliation, and adults will be moved by it only because we’re hopeless crybabies.
We’re also, at least in the eyes of the committee that issued this strategy memo disguised as a movie, eager to hear the voices of cool people we watch on television. Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City,” Fred Armisen of “Portlandia” and Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley” (and also “The Big Sick”) are on sidekick duty here, to no memorable effect. Ms. Jacobson’s character, the only girl in the six-ninja squad, barely rises to the level of tokenism.
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