Bricking it: why the Lego movie franchise is on shaky foundations

The Lego Ninjago Movie can’t hope to live up to the standard of either the original film or Lego Batman. Has quality already been sacrificed to quantity?

When we discuss the fad for cinematic universes, with their unimaginative bloat and paucity of ideas, we tend to overlook Lego. That’s partly because, in terms of sheer out-and-out stupidity, Lego has been comprehensively outflanked by everything from DC’s red-pill dirge to the ongoing forehead-slap that is Universal’s Dark Universe.

But it’s mainly because 2014’s The Lego Movie was so spectacular. Several thousand times better than it had any right to be, The Lego Movie zoomed in out of nowhere and smashed a hole in everyone’s expectations, bristling and fizzing with an irresistible energy that demanded you fell in love with it on the spot. The fact that the second Lego movie was Lego Batman – admittedly not quite as good, but the perfect counterpoint to Batfleck’s grim posturing – only helped to underline Lego’s potential as a feature film property.

Watch a trailer for The Lego Ninjago Movie

But now there’s The Lego Ninjago Movie, which has been much less rapturously received. Critically it’s been a dud, with reviewers baffled by the absence of humour. And commercially it’s the worst-performing Lego movie by a vast margin. Whether that’s been because nobody over the age of nine actually knows what Ninjago is – or even how to pronounce it properly – or because Lego has made the classic mistake of expanding too quickly remains to be seen. But we’ll find out pretty soon because, well, Lego is expanding too quickly.

In 2019, Lego will offer us both The Lego Movie Sequel and something called The Billion Brick Race. This will be in addition to the two straight-to-video releases out this year – Lego Scooby-Doo! Blowout Beach Bash and Lego DC Super Hero Girls: Brain Drain – the upcoming TV spin-off based on The Lego Movie’s Unikitty character and the breathtakingly unwieldy television special Lego Marvel Super Heroes – Guardians of the Galaxy: The Thanos Threat. Call me a cynic, but it seems unlikely that all of these projects will hit the heights we now expect them to.

And that’s a problem. Three years ago, Lego set out its stall on a promise of unbelievable quality, which was always going to be hard to maintain unless it opted for a policy of throwing everything it had at a tiny clutch of well-chosen films. The Lego Ninjago Movie proves that this isn’t going to be the case at all; that Lego instinctively favours quantity over quality.

Portentous … the Lego Star Wars videogame series.
Portentous … the Lego Star Wars videogame series. Photograph: Handout

The thrill of the first Lego Movie was that it was a film about Lego, about the unique joy of playing with Lego; it was the cinematic equivalent of a jumbled-up sandwich bag of bricks. But that was the only film that took this route. Lego Batman was a film about Batman. Ninjago is an unfathomable genre riff. And almost every other Lego property, from Scooby-Doo! to Guardians of the Galaxy, exists purely as a way to showcase Lego’s ongoing licensing exploits, in the same way that the Lego Star Wars videogame did back in 2005. But while it was innovative and cute to undercut a portentous franchise with wry humour 12 years ago, now these projects have become prolific enough to take on a perceptibly mercenary edge.

Perhaps it’s the case that we weren’t Lego Movie fans at all. I put it to you that we were just Lord and Miller fans all along. After all, they’re the ones who performed alchemy on the first Lego Movie, wrestling a genuinely inventive blockbuster from what easily could have been a transparently generic money-making exercise. And as with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – another gem of a film – Lego fell apart as soon as they stopped being directly involved with it. Lord and Miller have a much more impressive hit-rate than Lego – so, rather than looking forward to The Lego Movie Sequel (to be directed by the guy behind Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked), maybe it’d be more sensible if we got excited about Lord and Miller’s just-announced moon-heist movie instead.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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