LEGO’s Ninjago phenomenon continues to dominate with the recently released DVD, Masters of Spinjitzu, a two-episode disc that kickstarts the ninja legend of Kai, Jay, Zane and Cole. The plot is easily accessible for younger viewers, providing enough action and comedy to suit their impressionable minds. Older audience members will likely find the series a bore. Everything drips of merchandising, and much of the story feels ripped off from other far superior tales.
We learn during a montage that Sensei Wu and Lord Garmadon are long-lost brothers with opposing views of the world. Wu is a Yoda-like martial arts master who practices pacifism and calmness. Garmadon, on the other hand, is in command of the underworld and hellbent on destruction. When the evil one dispatches an army of skeletons to retrieve the coveted weapons of Spinjitzu, Wu responds by employing the help of Kai, Jay, Zane and Cole. It’s up to them to save the day and protect the four weapons. Much like the ring from Lord of the Rings, if these tools get in the wrong hands, the world may end.
As a child, I would have fallen in love with the vast universe of Ninjago. Not only can viewers watch the episodes on television or DVD, but they can act out the adventures with their own LEGO sets. It’s a clever marketing technique to have household toys become TV stars. It immediately connects the two realms, and LEGO is left with many, many dollar signs.
The problem is that LEGO characters don’t always translate to TV. For one, Wu and his four ninjas have those annoying cupped hands that are characteristic of LEGO pieces. As a toy, they prove to be useful. As a TV character, they look stilted and odd. Secondly, although the facial expressions change, everything seems painted and two-dimensional, as if some grand puppeteer were pulling the strings. Kids will not pick up on these subtle transitions from plastic to the airwaves, but adults will know the difference.
The story fits the cartoon series conveniently, but anyone with half a brain will realize that there’s not much originality here. Ninjago pulls heavily from the samurai and ninja traditions, in addition to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and mythology. It’s fine to be inspired by these earlier interpretations, but it’s up to the creative team to find a new way to tell an old story.
Criticizing Ninjago is like criticizing the Harry Potter or Twilight series. No matter what one says, there will always be a legion of dedicated fans. But for this successful LEGO series to jump beyond the cartoon universe and actually have a lasting impact, it needs to cater to multiple audiences. Children will get a lot out of Ninjago, but their parents are also sitting on the couch and they need some clever storytelling and somewhat engaging story lines. The age of cartoons exclusively for kids is long gone — or at least it should be.
PS: I do love the catchy theme song by The Fold.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu is now available on DVD. Season one will be released later this month.