It took three movies and almost four years, but it did eventually happen. Warner Bros. animation has finally made the uninspired Lego cartoon that so many people were expecting from The Lego Movie back in early 2014. Granted, The Lego Ninjago Movie is still more irreverent than the cynical, kids-only cash-in that could have resulted from adding “Lego” to “movie.” It has some laughs, and the computer animation programmed to resemble Legos in elaborate stop-motion remains eye-pleasing. But after the hilarious and surprisingly affecting Lego Movie and the very funny Lego Batman Movie, adult nerds may be taken aback to find a third film that plays like a middling kid distractor.
Lego Ninjago even flips the first movie’s surprise detour into live action to provide a shrug-worthy kid-movie prologue. A loner child wanders into a curiosity shop run by a slightly crusty but ultimately avuncular older man (Jackie Chan) who spins a fantastical tale about the city of Ninjago, though not before trying to instill genuine wonder at the sight of an old Lego toy being treated like a powerful relic.
Despite the mythological trappings, Lego Ninjago’s story approximates the same contemporary voice as its predecessors. A six-team squad of ninjas protects the city of Ninjago while secretly spending their days as regular high school kids. Lloyd (Dave Franco) faces ostracization from his non-ninja peers, because while none of them know that he moonlights as the powerful Green Ninja, they’re all painfully aware that the villainous Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who attacks the city with clockwork regularity, is his father. Garmadon also has no idea that Lloyd (or as he pronounces it, “Luh-loyd”) is his green-clad nemesis. That doesn’t stop him from neglecting his son; he only calls Lloyd on his birthday via butt-dial, and vaguely compliments him for looking less “bald and toothless” than when they last saw each other.
That’s one of many amusing lines, but Garmadon’s carelessness never deepens. Theroux’s vocal performance recalls Will Arnett’s gravelly bluster as Batman, and the character’s initial ego in the face of a kid’s sensitivity isn’t far removed from Lego Batman and Lego Robin (though Lloyd does get angrier than Robin). It’s characteristic of a movie heavy on voice-over talent but light on comic ideas, happy to rely on cheap meme humor like the intentionally cheesy live-action cutaways that introduce a particularly extreme weapon. Another hand-me-down from previous Lego adventures: The boys vastly outnumber the girls. Abbi Jacobson is the token woman in a ninja team made up of cable comedy all-stars (Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, and Zach Woods, plus Michael Peña); the only other prominent female role belongs to Olivia Munn, voicing Lloyd’s mom.
Steaming over his absentee father, Lloyd eventually defies his team to unleash that terrible weapon against Garmadon. When his impulsive move backfires and Ninjago is placed in even greater danger, the ninjas’ mentor, Master Wu (Chan again), attempts to guide them on a journey to set things right. It’s all a bit overcomplicated, and though it only runs 100 minutes, Lego Ninjago nonetheless feels sluggish and far less joke-dense than its predecessors.
The in-jokes are also cheaper. The characters are introduced via a Good Morning Ninjago segment that features Lego versions of Good Morning America hosts Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan. That a Ninjago movie wouldn’t have as much adult appeal makes sense. The line of corresponding toys has been around less than 10 years, without the built-in nostalgia of past Lego styles and eras (well-represented in characters and sight gags for the first film), or the cornucopia of Batman mythologies that Lego Batman got to play with. It also, crucially, leaves the movie without as strong a subject for parody. Ninjago purports to affectionately spoof kung-fu movies, but so much of its action lands somewhere between Power Rangers and generic superheroes—heavy on flying, blasting, and smashing—that the eventual lesson in ninja fundamentals doesn’t land, not least because this movie’s ninja fundamentals still involve mystical powers.
A few style tweaks liven things up. Another live-action cutaway—a rapid-fire index of made-up martial arts movies—is very funny, and the film experiments further with introducing non-animated textures with non-brick-based water and the non-animated ultimate weapon. (Hint: It’s called Meowthra.) The Lego Ninjago movie isn’t any worse than any number of professionally made but unexciting cartoons aimed at kids, and sometimes a gag will pop through with the same high-energy surprise that powered so much of The Lego Movie. The difference is what lingers when the laughs fade: the unmistakable feeling of a very good movie turning into a sorta good franchise, more work than play.