Whilst it's clearly the weakest instalment so far in the LEGO film franchise, there remain enough laughs to entertain throughout.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is now the third Lego-based feature in a franchise that shows no signs of slowing down and the first to take place entirely within an original Lego trademarked setting (the city of 'Ninjago'). For the first half hour the film feels little more than an extended, big-budgeted commercial (because that's exactly what it is), and with the appearance of each new character or 'mech' (the transformer-like robots piloted by each heroic ninja), kids jump up onto seats and point them out with gleeful recognition.
Plot wise, however, The LEGO Ninjago Movie takes a little while to find its feet, mostly on account of there not being one in that first thirty. Every day the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) launches attacks upon the city from his evil villain volcano, and every day he's repelled by the colourful school-kids-cum-ninjas, the leader of whom is secretly Garmadon's own son - Lloyd Garmadon (amusingly pronounced by his father throughout as 'Luh-Loyd' with two Ls). Once Lloyd's secret identity is revealed, though, the story shifts gears into something of a father/son reconciliation movie, and whilst that's largely familiar territory for the LEGO movies, it also provides the best material for the remainder of Ninjago.
The film again utilises the remarkable technology developed for the first movie wherein everything aside from the occasional snippets of real-world footage and a live-action performance by Australian actor Kaan Guldur is assembled from computer-generated LEGO pieces (although, interestingly, this time round they've opted for CGI special effects like explosions, water and steam compared to the strictly LEGO versions of those used in the original). Like the previous films, too, it's very self-aware, particularly regarding the LEGO-ness of things like the absence of fingers and the way a LEGO head can become stuck in the base of LEGO foot. They're the little flourishes that immediately feel familiar to anyone who's played with the toys before and, especially for adults, spark a pleasing nostalgia-based smile whenever they arise.
The characters themselves are noticeably less nuanced this time round than in The LEGO Movie or Batman, with only Lord Garmadon (played as a none-too-subtle parody of Donald Trump), Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco) and their master/trainer Wu (Jackie Chan) offering any particular depth. The other five ninjas do provoke the occasional laugh but seem well below the calibre of the actors voicing them (Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Michael Peña, Abi Jacobson and Fred Armisen) and - yes - for those playing at home you did count that correctly: 6 heroic ninjas, 5 of them male, raising the age-old LEGO question: "uh...where all the girls at, yo"?
It's a problem with which LEGO is well familiar. An internal review conducted by the company in 2008 revealed the damning statistic that 90% of its sales were directed towards boys rather than girls. LEGO's response was to launch Lego Friends in 2012 - a toy line specifically intended for girls - and whilst the inevitable outcry over non-gender-neutral toys roared into being, so too did the company's sales, with annual profits increasing by around 15% ever since.
Curiously, however, that same shift hasn't occurred in the films. The LEGO Movie's most kick-arse character was Elizabeth Banks's 'Wildstyle', yet she was the only notable female in an otherwise male-driven story whose live action component also centred upon a father/son bonding experience. LEGO Batman, too, saw only one notable female character (Rosario Dawson's Batgirl) and again focussed upon the the father/son-esque relationship between Bruce Wayne and the orphan boy Dick Grayson. Now we have LEGO Ninjago, which not only suffers from the 1-out-of-6 shocker but again deals mostly with the father/son relationship between Garmadon and his estranged son Lloyd. The only bright light in this situation is the announcement that The LEGO Movie sequel will focus specifically on gender issues and the way boys and girls play with the toys differently.
Solid fun for the kids and amusing enough to keep adults interested, whilst The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the weakest entry of the franchise, it's still entertaining enough to satisfy.