Every time I start one of the Lego Movie films, I experience a sense of bewilderment that what I’m about to watch actually exists. Of all the various merchandise brands that could be movie series – I’m waiting for you, Nerf: The Movie – Lego is somehow gracing the big screen nearly once a year. They do it, like your old school mascot at Homecoming, by leaning into the crazy.
The Lego Ninjago Movie makes even less sense than the batshit two movies that precede it (not that there’s a hint of continuity here). At the start, there’s a Power Rangers-esque force of warriors fighting off the big bad, warriors that have apparently been fending off evil for quite some time with huge animal mech-beasts, but who are such crappy ninjas that their master doesn’t trust them with finding some magical weapon?
Eh, whatever. If you start questioning one of these movies, you’ll go insane long before you get to a satisfactory answer.
So how, why do people still watch them? How do they do reasonably well at the box office and on critical sites like Rotten Tomatoes?
Because, darn it, they cook their crazy with the strong spice of simplicity. The first Lego Movie ran the same Hero’s Journey gauntlet so many flicks have before. Lego Batman has the loner discovering he, uh, can’t go it alone. And Lego Ninjago has a kid and his father learning to love each other.
These easily understood through-lines anchor all the chaos surrounding them and give us those cheesy popcorn moments that make movies so often seem so fun. We know they’re coming, and we don’t care when the father realizes who his son really is, when the son realizes his father may have had reasons for abandoning him, and when they both realize that there’s still time for them to develop some sort of relationship.
Those beats keep you grounded as giant cats, killer crabs, and an overflow of oddball mania wash across the screen every three seconds. And that’s fine! It’s what these movies are about – telling soft-hearted stories with manic abandon.
If there’s a lesson to draw from the Lego setup, in my opinion, it’s this: your audience has a certain amount of tolerance for the crazy. For different. If you scramble up the plot beats, defy convention and spin things in strange ways, you’re using up that tolerance. If you introduce new worlds, words, characters and laws of physics, you’re using up that tolerance.
So if you want more than a niche play, then look for that connective thread that most people can identify with (or at least recognize). Build a broad base, then raise up a tower of your own original ideas.
Bonus points if it comes with a catchy theme song.