Amid teenage ninjas, giant robots, a shark army and animated building blocks galore, reality creeps into The Lego Ninjago Movie (in theaters Friday) a lot more than you might expect.
The third film in the Lego series — following 2014’s The Lego Movie and this year’s The Lego Batman Movie — Ninjago centers on Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), a kid from Ninjago City who leads a team of secret masked heroes, and his archenemy Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), well-known as the Worst Guy Ever and also Lloyd’s estranged father.
Even with all the animated action, “the real world is leaking into these films,” says Charlie Bean, who directs alongside Paul Fisher and Bob Logan.
Five fun ways Lego Ninjago gets totally real:
Jackie Chan shows up in the flesh.
The legendary Hong Kong action star voices Lloyd’s teacher, Master Wu, and Chan’s stunt team filmed the punching and kicking that filmmakers animated over for the movie's fight scenes. But Chan has another important role as a wise antiques-store owner imparting knowledge to a youngster (Kaan Guldur) in live-action scenes that bookend the cartoon tale. “Maybe (the whole movie) is in the imagination of Jackie Chan as he’s telling the story,” Bean says. “Maybe it’s in the imagination of the kid in the shop.”
Famous faces host Good Morning Ninjago.
Unless you're a small child who lives and dies for Cartoon Network's Ninjago TV show, this karate-kicking fantasy world doesn’t have the same broad appeal as, say, the infamous comic-book personalities of Lego Batman. So there's a Good Morning Ninjago show within the movie — featuring Good Morning America personalities Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts playing their blocky counterparts — that gets audiences up to speed on Ninjago canon. “It just felt crazy and funny,” Bean says. “Here are these two trusted voices that are going to tell you what’s going on right away.”
A house cat goes on a rampage.
Lloyd and Garmadon find war indeed makes strange bedfellows when they're faced with Meowthra, a cute feline “monster” that wrecks Lego buildings Godzilla-style and sends Ninjago City into complete hysteria. “Instead of adding a new villain with a new personality that’s going to complicate the story, we wanted to focus on their emotional story, and Meowthra represents that giant force of nature they have to overcome,” Bean says.
There’s a place for cheesy karate videos.
Bean acknowledges that Lego Ninjago is “a love letter to martial-arts films,” but the movie's makers also wanted to have fun with the genre. When the mythic Ultimate Weapon (a laser pointer) is mentioned by Master Wu, a punk-rock montage of oddball live-action karate videos plays. Bean and his team pored through Shutterstock for the strangest footage possible. “The only directive was start at the bottom: What is the cheapest version of these things?” the director says. “Most of them aren’t from any martial-arts movie. They’re just some dude standing on a beach in a karate gi.”
Lego characters are familiar with Jim Croce.
One character bemoans Croce coming up on his playlist, leading to a needle drop of I Got a Name: The tune accompanies the father-son moment of Garmadon teaching Lloyd how to throw correctly. (The kid’s pretty terrible.) The song hit a feel-good nostalgia note, plus “it’s pretty silly” in context, Bean says. “I don’t think kids need to know what that song is or the reference — it has the right spirit for what’s going on.”
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