Thursday, June 7, 2018

Theory Thursday: "The LEGO Ninjago Movie" is the Best LEGO Movie

Scene from The LEGO Ninjago Movie
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The LEGO Movie 2 releases its first trailer.
Theory: The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the best of the LEGO movies (so far).

This week has been a bit of a hassle for those that love watching movie trailers. As I will chronicle over at Optigrab, there were close to 20 trailers between movies and TV for major programming scheduled to come out. Among the more noteworthy was The LEGO Movie 2, which is the long awaited sequel to the Oscar-nominated original that gave us the LEGO Oscar. It's easy to get excited, especially how joyous the other film has made audiences. While I may be in the minority that thinks it's a bit manic and and too soporific, I can admit one thing: the other LEGO movies actually are pretty good.

As a skeptic, I watched The LEGO Batman Movie and found myself wholly impressed with how it managed to find the perfect ground for a Batman fandom analogy. It tore apart the gritty reboot pretentiousness of his current persona and found a man too insecure to have a family. It was a perfect deconstruction and the best chance to stick in as many Adam West-era references as possible. I really like the movie, though I will confess one thing: I think it suffers from the same issues that the other LEGO movie has for me. It feels like it needs to do everything since the very idea of LEGO as a toy is to build anything and create worlds beyond our current imagination. It's fine, but The LEGO Batman Movie's failing was that it didn't do that within the strict Batman, or even D.C., universe. It went for bigger franchises like King Kong and Lord of the Rings, which I'll be honest made my heart dwindle a bit at how clever the first 3/4 of the movie ended up being.

But what about The LEGO Ninjago Movie? It was a movie that predominantly got ignored at the box office, at least in comparison to the other more prominent films. There wasn't as much focus on how inventive its wacky jokes were or what it did with LEGO animations. No, it was just another kids film for audiences to consume. Maybe it was in part due to the fatigue that people had after The LEGO Batman Movie (did we really need TWO of these in one year?), but it got a bum rap. Sure, it didn't have Batman or anything that The LEGO Movie had (including the clout backed by great reviews). However, there's one thing that I think separates it from the other films: it's actually the best story that any of the three have told.

Okay, that's tough to argue for simple facts. The LEGO Movie exceeded the bounds by which a brick-layered movie could go. The LEGO Batman Movie cleverly teared apart the pathos of Batman in the funnest way possible. By comparison, a homemade brand like The LEGO Ninjago Movie cannot compare at all. It's just a goofy adventure in which the villain is a cat chasing a laser pointer. But here's where I get to the heart of things. Just because a LEGO movie can do anything doesn't mean it should. The LEGO Ninjago Movie recognizes that in order to be an appealing film, you first need to have compelling characters that exceed the fact that their arms are disposable. You need to create an empathy.

Yes, it does play into a lot of the issues of the other films. It has a real life cat centered to the plot. The film is bookended by Jackie Chan providing narration of the story's "mythology." There's a lot that is familiar, but it's also somehow the most grounded in spite of this. There's action scenes in which teenage ninjas fight bad guys that plays like the most 90's teenage action show. It's goofy, but most of all it creates a central cast that already feels lived in, creating an easy accessibility when the plot moves into the heart of what the film is about: a strained relationship between a son and his supervillain father. Okay, that plot is a bit overplayed (Star Wars much?), but it's the beginning of where the film obtains its interesting plot. It's an action film for kids with plenty of clever jokes scattered throughout with a voice cast that is better than expected.

But most of all, the chemistry between the son and father is good enough. It doesn't just feature a strained fight between good and evil. Instead, there's whole scenes where they're left to help each other, creating a deeper understanding of how each one thinks on an ideological level. There's a lot of comedy and clever use of LEGO designs. In fact, it may be some of the most cohesive-looking action that the three films has produced. To see them come up with scenarios where ninjas fight has the easy chance of looking silly, but instead gives depth to the characters. Both good and evil have their driven motivations, and it's great to see them use their powers in smart ways. Even the presence of a wise guide (Chan) creates a compelling dynamic between student and teacher. 

It may not be a complicated story and at times is more manic than either film, but it has the most heart of the three. Its third act is enough to prove what I mean. Without giving away much, it tears apart the mythos of why the villain fell to the dark side and found a way to make the entire thing feel a bit more tragic. It doesn't redeem its characters, but still manages to find a deeper heart. It also has a giant cat in the third act that far outranks any live action component that these movies have had. It seems ridiculous in just the right amount, never diving into absurdity that betrays the story's concept. As a whole, it's just the right amount of silly and has fun with its premise. 

If I can be honest, I still think that The LEGO Movie franchise is a bit inferior. Most of the films that they've created are fun, but I think there's still a need to experiment with form and reassure the audience that yes, LEGO can be torn apart and be rebuilt. It's fine, but I think that it doesn't work as a cinematic experience to just have a toy with infinite possibilities achieve limited possibilities. If you're going to make it a film, why not make it tell a story that works within its medium, such as doing morbid decapitation jokes that seem cute in LEGO form. That's a lot of what makes The LEGO Ninjago Movie work. I think it has just enough absurdity to work, but doesn't feel the need to have wild tangents consistently shifting the tone and making the experience more about what jokes are funny. This one tells a full story that may be familiar, but is fun to watch because of how streamlined it ends up being. I wish that more people were hip to how fun this movie was, even if it doesn't have a great dissection of any pop culture icon or anything flashy to fall back on. 

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