We now have three installments of the least creatively titled franchise ever, and a pattern is emerging: the LEGO movies center on isolated and friendless boys who long for the bonds of family, particularly their fathers, but who can relate to others only through the medium of plastic brick assembly. The first LEGO movie revealed its stakes in an unforgettable last-minute twist, and this is a problem for the subsequent LEGO movies: unforgettable twists can’t be reused. “The LEGO Batman Movie” tried to hit the same note by giving Batman a found family of Joker, Robin and Barbara Jordan, but without a single relationship as a focal point, the movie floundered. “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” tries the same trick, but with eight relationships instead of three. One feels the creators have not fully reflected. Nevertheless, onward to Ninjago, a colorful, vaguely Asian city with one glaring problem: a volcano-inhabiting supervillain named Garmadon who attacks the city so regularly that the local TV news features a Garmadon forecast. Opposing him are a group of teenaged ninjas representing the natural elements: earth, fire, lightning, water, ice… and green. Green is Lloyd. He’s Garmadon’s son. If the movie had left the stakes this simple—the son of a supervillain struggles to define himself—it would have made for a better film. Unfortunately, the movie tries for multiple epiphanies, and doesn’t quite stick the landing on any of them. However, I bet you won’t mind: Ninjago is so lively, so inventively jammed that it feels like a fully realized world, with potential for stories and lives well beyond the borders of the movie. Which, since you can purchase every brick and minifig used to build that world, means that the creators of “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” did stick one important landing. Gentlemen, start your Christmas lists.
Three years ago, “The LEGO Movie” surprised everyone by being genuinely funny and heartfelt, with a tear-jerking final twist balanced like a lemon peel on the edge of the movie’s sugared rim. For many, the best part of the movie was a cameo appearance by Batman as a sullen, brooding tool who “only works in black—and very, very dark shades of grey”. Now, he’s been given his own movie in which to work out his issues, beatbox, and punch criminals, sometimes at the same time. This Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is as spoiled and puddle-shallow as any trust-fund baby, but his life is echoingly empty, a condition beautifully illustrated by the sequence in which he comes home, heats up a Lobster Thermidor in the microwave, and eats it while floating on an inflatable donut in the center of an enormous, empty swimming pool. Being rich has never looked like so little fun. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tries to push Batman towards human contact, but the vigilante doesn’t work or play well with others: he regards civilians only as audiences, and the rest of the Justice League are avoiding him. Even his old nemesis, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), wants more from the relationship—try as he might, Batman can’t quite choke out the three little words every archenemy wants to hear (“I hate you.”)
The setup is solid, but the movie falters in the second act; newly minted city commissioner Barbara Jordan (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and beguiling orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) stumble into Batman’s life, but they don’t strike up much chemistry or fun with him, and the movie’s “found family” dynamic feels stilted. The Batman/Barbara Jordan relationship in particular never gels; we’re supposed to see growing mutual respect, but Batman alternates between treating Jordan as an inconvenient meddler and a sex object, while Jordan is stuck endlessly intoning concern. When, at the end of the movie, Batman refers to Jordan as his “totally platonic” coworker and friend, then tries to steal a kiss (only to be dropped on his ass), the awkward muddle feels emblematic of the entire relationship. As is so often the case, it falls to the villain to redeem things—parachuting back into the scene with an entire raft of Warner Brothers baddies (including Voldemort, King Kong, and Sauron), the Joker brings all the oxygen back into the movie in time for the climax, which registers as a burst of explosive, Simpsons-colored yellow whirling with pink and black bricks. As in the first movie, the actual building and disintegrating happens at a pace too fast to examine, which left me feeling a bit cheated; anyone with a LEGO piece or two buried in their couch cushion would want to see how such dazzlement fits together. But it’s hard to be peeved during a perfectly deployed Michael Jackson song, just as it’s hard not to walk out of the movie with a bounce in your step and a growl in your voice. “Always be yourself,” the meme goes, “Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”
There are worse things to be.