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The Lego Ninjago Movie is perfectly adequate, assuming you know what Ninjago is

But the direction it signals for the Lego Movie franchise is worrying.

The Lego Ninjago Movie
The Lego Ninjago Movie
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Lego Ninjago Movie is perfectly adequate on the level of cartoon-driven entertainment. That’s all it sets out to be. And so by that measure, it’s a rousing success. But by the measure of the movie franchise it serves as the third installment for, it’s missing some critical pieces.

Its predecessors in that franchise were hugely entertaining but also more than just fluff. The original Lego Movie was an unexpectedly joyous adventure-comedy that capitalized on the blocks’ ability to let kids’ creativity run wild. The Lego Batman Movie was competent both as comedy and as a coy satirical take on superhero movies more generally — slightly less clever, but still super fun.

This one has a lot of good jokes and puns, and it’s not unpleasant to watch. (The movie’s monster is a giant, non-talking cat, which is pretty funny for anyone who’s tried to play with Legos around a cat.) But when it comes to ideas, it has less ratting around upstairs than the previous two films.

Which is fine, if a bit disappointing. The Lego Ninjago Movie isn’t trying to launch or critique a franchise so much as extend an existing one. And while the Lego movies’ slide toward Saturday morning cartoon territory is disheartening, the franchise still packs in enough wry humor to make it much more fun than your average kids’ movie.

But if you’re not 10 years old, or don’t spend a lot of time in the proximity of 10-year-olds, your most burning question about The Lego Ninjago Movie may be less about whether the movie is successful and more about what a “ninjago” is. The movie itself isn’t all that illuminating on that point — or any point in particular — so here’s the context you need to pick up what Lego Ninjago is putting down.

What’s a ninjago?

“Ninjago,” a portmanteau of “ninja” and “Lego,” is not a thing. It’s a world. Ninjago is a fictional place invented as both a theme for Lego sets and a setting for the show Ninjago: Master of Spin, which began its run in 2011 and is hugely popular with the younger set.

Ninjago, as the lore would have it, was created by the First Spinjitzu Master, who used some very powerful weapons called the Four Elemental Weapons of Spinjitzu. The Master had two sons — Lord Garmadon and Sensei Wu — who were evil and good, respectively. Garmadon was eventually banished to an underworld while Wu protected the powerful weapons. But Garmadon came back, so Wu trained four young ninjas, who became the keepers of the weapons. Garmadon’s goal is to conquer Ninjago; Wu’s goal is to protect it.

The Lego Ninjago Movie’s monster
The Lego Ninjago Movie’s monster.

That information would have been pretty helpful going into The Lego Ninjago Movie, though it does its best to fill all the details in very quickly so those who aren’t superfans can get the gist. By the time the movie starts, the four ninjas have grown to six: Cole (Fred Armisen) is the earth ninja, Jay (Kumail Nanjiani) is the lightning ninja, Kai (Michael Peña) is the fire ninja, Nya (Abbi Jacobson) is the water ninja, Zane (Brent Miller) is the ice ninja, and Lloyd (Dave Franco) is the “green” ninja, and no, he doesn’t really know what that means either.

Lloyd is also the son of Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), a fact that gives him no end of grief, since his dad keeps attacking the city with his skeleton army and the other parents at his school aren’t so keen on their kid playing with the son of the guy trying to wreck their homes and lives. Garmadon — who calls him “Luh-loyd” — has been an absentee father for the most part, so Lloyd lives with his mother and tries to keep her from finding about his secret identity as the Green Ninja.

That’s the basic setup, and it all unfurls in classic cartoon-movie style, with Lloyd and Lord Garmadon winding up, through a series of unexpected events, fighting on the same side and having various revelations about themselves, their histories, and their relationships.

The Lego Ninjago Movie puts the franchise on a dangerous slope

There’s some martial arts in here, some monsters (mostly the cat), some slapstick and joking around, and some adventuring, all of which is entirely serviceable for entertaining a room full of young Lego Ninjago fans who have enjoyed the show’s six seasons while not actively boring their indulgent parents.

Also present: lots and lots of product placement. The simultaneous rise of the show and the Lego sets makes this inescapable, of course. There’s also a Ninjago theme in the toy-to-video-game product Lego Dimensions, and a Lego Juniors version for the smallest fans.

A scene from The Lego Ninjago Movie
A scene from The Lego Ninjago Movie.

In a sense, the Lego Movie franchise has always been blatant product placement, of course. It’s right there in the name. But compared with its predecessors, this one doesn’t have as much to recommend it to those who are there more for the comedy than for the credit card bills. It relies on references and jokes for its humor instead of going big and slyly poking fun at movies themselves.

And that could be a worrying sign of the future of the Lego movies, which have always been a bright spot of imagination in the confused and sometimes blatantly consumeristic Angry Birds/Trolls/Emoji Movie parade. Let’s hope they don’t succumb to the same fate.

The Lego Ninjago Movie opens in US theaters on September 22.

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