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The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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The exotic, plastic-brick, vaguely Asian-y city of Ninjago is under constant threat from the evil, four-armed Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of shark-themed minions. Luckily, the city is protected by a team of six ninja warriors who pilot giant Lego robots – think Power Rangers but, y’know, Lego-y. Unbeknownst to all, the six heroes are in fact teenagers at Ninjago High School who have been trained by the inscrutable Master Wu (Jackie “my cheque, please” Chan). And doubly unbeknownst, one of their number, the Green Ninja, is in fact Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), whose familial link to the would-be conqueror makes him a social outcast. However, when Garmadon actually manages to conquer to city, Lloyd and his teammates must look deep within themselves to… ah, you get the gist.

It took three directors, six credited writers, and seven people under the dubious “story by” banner to come up with The LEGO Ninjago Movie‘s rather soulless and generic story, and perhaps those numbers are indicative of the root problem: it feels like it’s designed by a committee with a firm grasp of market demographics and a dismal understanding of plot, character, and purposefulness.

We were two for two with Lord and Miller’s excellent The LEGO Movie and Chris McKay’s The LEGO Batman Movie, both of which transcended their presumed “kids movie” genre box to become something across-the-board entertaining and, even more surprising, meaningful.

Ninjago doesn’t do that.

What it does is squander an incredibly talented voice cast (Michael Pena, Kumail Najiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn) on a stunningly hoary hero’s journey, wrapped in a weird Orientalist mythology that is happy to swipe the visual cues from Chinese and Japanese culture and history, but draws the line at actually foregrounding characters from those cultures; all the actors of Asian descent are in supporting roles, while culturally Ninjago feels like Southern California by way of the Shaw Brothers backlot – it’s very, very American.

The world feels ramshackle and forced – there’s a fine line between the freewheeling creativity of The LEGO Movie, which managed to incorporate huge and varying swathes of pop culture and still feel of a piece. Problems start right out of the gate when we’re served a live action framing device ala The Neverending Story in which Jackie Chan, as charming and avuncular as ever, drops wisdom on a bullied child – how this ties in to the plastic brick universe of the main narrative is never made clear, nor is the “physics” or “cosmology” of the Ninjago setting (that may sound high-minded but, again, reflect on The LEGO Movie, which pulled off a stunning late-act reveal by connecting the “real” and “Lego” universes).

It all feels lazy, poorly thought out and redundant – which is kind of amazing when you consider the incredible work and attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the film. We’re not yet at a point where these towering Lego creations are visually uninteresting, praise the lord, and Animal Logic deserve plaudits for some of the spectacular builds in the movie – not the least of which is Gormadon’s giant robot, complete with shark-firing canon.

That doesn’t make for a good story, though, and Ninjago‘s story fails on some really basic levels, like cause and effect. Garmadon conquers Ninjago simply by climbing to the top of its tallest tower, which works fine when you’re five and play-fighting on a playground fort, but makes zero sense in this context. It feels like we’re expected to just go with it because it’s a kids’ movie, which absolutely flies in the face of why the previous Lego films worked at all.

Being charitable, kids who are into the Ninjago franchise will in all likelihood get a kick out of this one – there are references to mythology elements outside of the frame of the film that might give a little rill of continuity joy to the faithful (or they may be meaningless – it’s hard to say), but the simple truth is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not the cross-demographic joy that its predecessors are. In fact, it feels like the lazy offering we expected back in those cynical days when they first announced a Lego movie, and that’s pretty damning.

 
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CHIPS

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

CHIPS, the old ’70s TV series that saw a couple of Californian motorcycle cops deal with the lightest of crimes in the sunniest state, gets raunched up and re-imagined for the 21st century big screen by writer, director, and star, Dax Shepard, who learns the hard way that this 21 Jump Street malarkey isn’t as easy as it looks.

Shepard is John Baker, a battle-scarred former stunt rider turned rookie California Highway Patrol officer, who teams up with Michael Pena’s Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, an undercover FBI agent sent into the CHP to root out some crooked cops who are pulling armed robberies on the side. The wackily mismatched partners get on each others nerves, but bond in the course of their debut adventure, with plenty of laughs and action along the way.

That last sentence doesn’t happen though.

Instead, we get a long series of risible gross-out jokes, some horrible ill-judged homophobia (Pena’s Ponch is so mortally terrified of male intimacy you half expect him to straight-up shoot the touchy-feely John and claim “gay panic”), and a lurching, tepid plot that somehow manages to be both utterly predictable and bafflingly convoluted at the same time – it’s the alchemical marriage of bad writing.

CHIPS fails to function at even the most basic level. Characters change traits and goals for no good reason, scenes run on past any logical cutting point, joke after joke falls flat, and what little action there is fails to make an impact. Seriously, you would think that the minimum requirement for a film literally centered on a stunt motorcyclist is a decent number of motorcycle stunts.

The incompetence on display is staggering. It would be interesting to get a look at the shooting script, if only to see how much of this rubbish is on the page and how much is the result of poor on set improvisation – the latter would at least account for the film’s flabby, unstructured feel. But it wouldn’t excuse the strong current of ugly misogyny that runs through the film.

Most of that is courtesy of Ponch, who spends his spare time ogling women in yoga pants and pursuing sex with women he clearly despises, but there’s a weird strain of it going on with Shepard’s John, too, who has joined the CHP, as he repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, to win back his wife. Said wife is portrayed as a stone cold bitch who has forced our boy to live in their guest house while she moves on with her life, and John’s arc is basically him realising that he’s pining away for a gold digger. The implications of her being played by Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real life wife, are best left uninvestigated.

CHIPS is an ugly film: cheap, mean-spirited, joyless and pointless. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a misanthropic comedy, but it needs to have some kind of reason for being, some hint of an operating principal. At the bare minimum, it needs to be funny. As it stands, CHIPS is bereft of both meaning and comedy. It’s a nasty exercise in meanness for its own sake, that seems to despise its characters and its own existence, and invites the viewer to do the same. Better to simply ignore it instead.