I have never liked Lego’s Ninjago franchise. I don’t like the premise, I don’t like how it’s animated, and it’s regularly a contender for my Top Five Worst Written TV Shows list, so I certainly don’t like the writing. This didn’t used to be a big deal. Ninjago is just one of many Lego-based TV shows, most of which are fairly mediocre. And of all the mediocre and sometimes awful shows available for children these days, Ninjago is hardly the worst, and it’s not a glaringly popular show, so it was fairly easy for me to ignore up until this point.
That’s no longer the case. Lego (and Warner Bros.) did this to themselves, really, by deciding that Ninjago should be the subject of the third Lego franchise movie. The Lego Ninjago Movie is coming to a theater near you on September 22, 2017. And that’s fine–it might even be a good movie! The two previous Lego movies were pretty good!–but it means that Ninjago is about to get way more mainstream than it’s ever been. So I’m taking the chance to air my grievances with this previously obscure animated kids’ show.
First: The Premise.
Ninjago is the story of five young ninjas–Kai, Jay, Cole, Zane, and later Lloyd–who are tasked with defending their world from a variety of villainous forces. Along for the ride are several supporting characters, including Sensei Wu, the group’s mentor, Kai’s sister Nya, and Lloyd’s mother Misako.
The show is ostensibly set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan–hence the ninjas–but after the two pilot episodes, the show abandons that setting pretty quickly in favor of “Ninjago City”, which is just a generic city setting, and other set pieces that don’t generally have much to do with feudal Japan, or ninjas. This leads to the impression that the writers are just throwing in as many bankable elements as they can in an attempt to sell more toys. This has given rise to a couple of interesting episodes, such as “Ninjaball Run” and “Wrong Place, Wrong Time”, but mostly it just makes the show feel unfocused and confusing. Every time you revisit the show, there’s a new flying pilot ship or army of cyborgs or ghost realm, and that makes it hard to keep up.
Another problem with the premise is that while the original setting is inspired by Japan, the show never really follows through with that idea. Ninjago City takes no inspiration from modern Japanese cities; it’s as generic as they come. There are random elements, like the aforementioned flying pirate ship, that have no reason to be in fantasy Japan. Most of the characters aren’t identifiably Japanese–Wu, Garmadon, Misako, and I think Nya are all coded as Japanese, but none of the main characters are. It’s never explained how Lloyd turned out blonde. By season six, I think the writers just gave up, because season six’s villain is a djinn, which is an Arabian mythological creature.
Ninjago, with a little thought and creativity, could’ve actually had a really interesting setting and premise, with the characters being ninjas in a steampunk/modern-mythical version of Japan. I’m disappointed that the show didn’t run with that, because it would’ve been more interesting and engaging than the mush of ideas they’ve got going now.
Next Up: The Animation.
This is probably the least frustrating problem I have with the show, and the issue most likely to be fixed by the new movie. The animation of most Lego shows, due to having comparatively lower budgets, has a sort of unfinished rubbery look to it, and the characters tend to move with a full range of motion, just like they would if they weren’t Lego minifigures, which is strange to look at when they are Lego minifigures. The animation in Lego movies is much better–it’s meant to emulate stop action, so it looks more natural. The character designs for the movie also look more visually distinct and unique, so that’s good. Overall I’m not too worried about the animation in the movie; as long as it improves on the show’s animation, it’ll probably be fine.
My last point is the one I could talk the longest about. I’ll try to keep it brief, but to sum up: I absolutely despise how Ninjago is written.
If there’s one thing in stories that irks me, it’s missed opportunities. And Ninjago is chock full of those. As with the setting, the writers’ tendency to choose the most cliche or well-established route for the story means that the show is constantly bypassing opportunities to do interesting and creative things.
The pilot (which is technically two episodes) starts with Kai, the main character (at least for a little while), being forced to become a ninja when his sister is kidnapped. This is… an alright plotline, but it’s been done to death in other media. Everyone has seen it before. What’s worse, this begins a plot thread for Nya that sees her almost constantly sidelined and treated as a damsel in distress, or a romantic trophy for Jay. (And Cole that one time.) Nya occasionally has an effect on the plot; in season one (after the pilot) she becomes a samurai for a while… after being told by her brother and the other ninjas that she just isn’t up to being a hero. Season five sees her become the ninja of water, but by season six Nya is back to being the damsel in distress, as that season’s villain kidnaps her and basically uses her to repeatedly lure Jay into traps. And that’s just Nya. I haven’t even talked about how the other characters are written yet.
Remember Kai? Kai is the character the series starts with, and the viewpoint character for about a season and a half. After that the focus abruptly shifts to Lloyd, who then remains as the real main character for most of the rest of the show. Kai’s narrative never really reaches a high point or finishes; he just keeps leveling up after every season with the rest of the supporting characters. And that’s another problem: at this point the main characters are all so absurdly powerful that the villains have to be reality-warping time travelers to pose any kind of threat. After a while, repeated level-ups and ridiculously powerful villains just start to get boring.
These are the bones of Ninjago‘s writing problems. Just about every season of the show is plagued with missed opportunities, cliche plot points, underused (and overused) characters, and a lack of focus that just make it disappointing to watch. Somewhere inside Ninjago there are a lot of interesting ideas trying desperately to fight their way to the surface through an ocean of tired, lazy writing decisions.
You might ask, “Why does any of this matter? It’s just a kids’ show. It’s not supposed to be good.” Maybe it’s not. There are still a lot of animated kids’ shows that range from mediocre to awful. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In recent years, shows like Adventure Time, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Phineas and Ferb have proven that even shows meant for kids can have engaging storylines, complex characters, and stunning plot twists. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has all of those things, and it’s meant to sell toys–just like Ninjago is. So there’s really no excuse for the show to be this mediocre–other than the fact that the creators just don’t care that much about what they’re doing.
I hope the movie will be better than this. It seems like it’s going to attempt the same style of humor and action that The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie had. The animation will be better, and the format will (hopefully) force the writers to tell a more complete and streamlined story. But I have to admit that I’m worried. The Lego Ninjago Movie is primarily pulling from the show’s material–material that is, as I’ve pointed out at length, quite flawed. The Lego Movie was an original story and The Lego Batman Movie had 65+ years of comics, animation, and movies to pull from. The Lego Ninjago Movie only has this. I hope they can fix the show’s structural problems and tell a better story. We’ll have to wait until September to see if they do.