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If It"s Not Briông xã, Don"t Fix It: Lloyd, voiced by Dave Franteo, và his father Garmadon, voiced by Justin Theroux, in The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

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If It"s Not Briông xã, Don"t Fix It: Lloyd, voiced by Dave sầu Franteo, và his father Garmadon, voiced by Justin Theroux, in The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures

In 2014, the directing/screenwriting team of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller surprised a cynical, jaded nation that was expecting, from The LEGO Movie, a cynical, jaded toy commercial.

It was that, khổng lồ be clear. But it was also frenetic, funny, colorful, clever and desperately eager-to-please: a hugely imaginative sầu joyride through a riotous landscape of Warner Bros.-owned intellectual property. Movie as theme park.

Mostly, though, it possessed something few putative sầu tentpole blockbusters have any interest in attempting, much less manage to lớn achieve: a distinctive sầu, idiosyncratic style.

That style emerged not from the too-crowded-by-half plot, which doled out discrete parcels of loud action phối pieces & "Cat"s in the Cradle" sentiment with a dutiful precision borne of studio notes & chạy thử marketing. No, its style was a product — weirdly enough, for a movie starring digitally animated but barely animate plastic figurines — of casting.

Try, right now, khổng lồ quote a line, a joke, a running gag from The LEGO Movie, or its successor, The LEGO Batman Movie. Go ahead: There"s plenty khổng lồ choose from.

Having trouble? That"s because these movies aren"t really about the multitudinous (solid! very good! frequently hilarious!) gags stuffed inlớn their scripts via studio-sanctioned punch-up sessions. As satisfyingly joke-dense as these movies get, they only come alive in their vocal performances.

Hiring voice talent lượt thích Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nichồng Offerman, Zach Galifianakis, Ellie Kemper và Jenny Slate was smart: They"re solid actors with instantly recognizable voices. But of course they"re more than that.

They"re comic actors.

They can make a joke l&, sure. Far more importantly, they"re masters of comic timing, comic dialogue, which means they can wring laughs out of the subtle variations in tone that occur over the course of even the most mundane conversation. And in Lord/Miller LEGO movies, the mundanity of a given conversation is frequently the joke.

Take a Lord/Miller LEGO conversational staple: Amid some ridiculously high-stakes predicament, the tension gets undercut as one character grows increasingly frustrated with another"s obtuseness/stubbornness. From The LEGO Batman Movie:

The Joker: It"s gotta be one or the other, Batman. Save sầu the thành phố, or catch your greathử nghiệm enemy. You can"t vị both.

Batman: I"m sorry, what did you just say?

The Joker: You can"t bởi vì both, I said.

Batman: No, I mean the other thing.

The Joker: Save sầu the city, or catch your greakiểm tra enemy.

Batman: You think you"re my greachạy thử enemy?

The Joker: Yes! You"re obsessed with me!

Batman: No, I"m not.

The Joker: Yes you are.

Batman: No I"m not.

The Joker: Yes, you are! Who else drives you lớn one-up them the way that I do?

Batman: Bane.

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The Joker: No, he doesn"t.

Batman: Superman.


On the page, sort of funny. Onscreen — thanks lớn Arnett"s deadpan monotone & Galifianakis" ability to lớn modulate the Joker"s overblown arch-villain persomãng cầu with the unforced, naturalistic exasperation of a guy confronting the co-worker who refuses to admit she ate the GoGurt he was saving in the office fridge — something more.

That"s the formula Lord và Miller first struông chồng upon in năm trước, & iterated in The LEGO Batman Movie:

Loud, colorful, breathless action Standard kid-movie emotional toolkit: (Daddy Issues, The Importance of Teamwork, "Believe sầu In Yourself," etc.) Pop-culture gags by the metric ton Constantly undercutting the film"s deliberately overblown genre trappings with surprisingly naturalistic dialogue that explicitly questions those trappings

When The LEGO Batman MovieThe LEGO Ninjago Movie were first announced, we thought we knew what Lord and Miller were up lớn. We thought they were kicking off a franchise. ("Sure, fine," we thought. "Good for them. Bring on The LEGO James Bond Movie. The LEGO Little Women Movie. The LEGO Last Exit khổng lồ Brooklyn Movie.")

What we didn"t realize — until now, with the release of the dutiful, oddly joyless LEGO Ninjago Movie — was that they weren"t building a franchise.

They were creating a wholly new genre.

Franchises are about sale, but genres are about nội dung, & the strict narrative sầu parameters that surround that nội dung. High fantasy needs swords, steampunk needs gears/blimps, romance needs someone (or something) lớn, at some point or another, throb.

And even though Lord và Miller aren"t writing or directing (they get producer credits these days), The LEGO Ninjago Movie hies closely — very, very closely — khổng lồ the narrative sầu parameters they"ve sầu established:

1. Loud, colorful, breathless action? Check.

The thành phố of Ninjago comes under constant, loud, explosive attaông chồng from the evil, volcano-dwelling supervillain Lord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux). It is defended — constantly, loudly, explosively — by a team of color-coded ninjas và their fightin" mechs. There"s Nya the Water Nin-Ja (Abbi Jacobsen), Cole the Earth Ninja (Fred Armisen), Jay the Lightning Ninja (Kumail Nanjiani), Kai the Fire Ninja (Michael Pena), Zane the Ice Nin-Ja (Zach Woods) and Lloyd the Green Nin-Ja (Dave sầu Franco).

(Blame the film"s hazy, lazy Orientalism — the town of Ninjago resembles an extruded plastic slumgullion of nhật bản, Hong Kong, Korea and Đài Loan Trung Quốc, và the great Jackie Chan plays the owner of an exotic (wink, wink) antique store in the film"s live-action but lifeless framing device — on its source material: LEGO"s line of vaguely pan-Asian action figures, in which Japanese ninjas ride Chinese dragons. )

2. Standard kid-movie emotional toolkit? Check.

Lloyd, see, is Garmadon"s son — a fact that makes hyên ổn a pariah at school, & bestows upon him the requisite Daddy Issue that sets the action in motion. There"s also a more-than-generous helping of "The power is inside you!" on hvà, và the team"s mentor Master Wu (Chan again) dispenses the bromides about teamwork & believing in oneself you fully expect hyên to lớn.

3. Pop-culture gags by the metric ton? Check.

Oh, my, yes. I mean, there"s a nearly subliminal reference to the Tom Hardy film Locke that inspired a lone, inordinately loud bark-laugh from some hapless schmo in the audience at the screening I attended. (Reader, it was mine.)

4. Constantly undercutting the film"s deliberately overblown genre trappings with surprisingly naturalistic dialogue that explicitly questions those trappings? Check.

The film"s stellar supporting cast gets not nearly enough to lớn bởi vì — so little that viewers are left khổng lồ impute the nature of many of the relationships amuốn them. (Nanjiani"s Jay is meant lớn have sầu a crush on Jacobsen"s Nya, I think? Based on one line?) That"s the bad news, and given the talent on h&, that news ... is pretty bad.

But what"s shunting all those very funny actors inlớn the background is the relationship between Franco"s aching-for-connection Lloyd & Theroux"s blithely evil Garmadon. And Theroux — deliberately channeling, he has stated in interviews, Will Arnett — is so fantastic here you almost forgive sầu Garmadon"s hogging of the spotlight. Almost.

Watching hlặng — or, more accurately, listening lớn hyên ổn — is when you truly begin khổng lồ appreciate how much of the load these vocal performances are carrying, how totally the success of a given Lord/Miller LEGO movie lives or dies in the specific execution of that breezy, naturalistic humor.

Because here, just three movies in, the Lord/Miller LEGO genre is showing signs of exhaustion.

There"s a moment early on in which Lloyd and Garmadon confront each other: Lloyd keeps trying to lớn get Garmadon khổng lồ admit he feels something for his son in the face of Garmadon"s comprehensive sầu indifference. It is not simply an iteration on the Batman/Joker dynamic referenced above. It is precisely the same dynamic, expressed in precisely the same way. One exchange could have sầu been cut-and-pasted onto the other.

Yes, but is it funny? Sure. And that"s what matters. But it"s funny solely because of what Franteo & (especially) Theroux bring lớn it. And that doesn"t bode well for future Lord/Miller LEGO movies.

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They can và will continue khổng lồ bring the action, emotion & gags that their nascent, self-created genre demands — but it"s now clearer than ever that those factors matter far less than the specific execution of a given film"s vocal performances. We"re left to lớn conclude that the distinctive sầu style we first glimpsed in The LEGO Movie wasn"t as alive sầu & organic and messy as it seemed then, but was instead a product of discrete elements, factory extruded, that lock together with a satisfying, but entirely plastic, clichồng.