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THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE Made Our Heads Spinjitzu with Jackie Chan’s Much Needed Message

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September 21, 2017

This post is in partnership with Warner Bros. Pictures, who invited me and my son to LEGOLAND to review and cover The LEGO NINJAGO Movie, now in theaters.

Our kids today have so much: smartphones, 24/7 internet and streaming services, sophisticated video games, organic food – delivered, etc. What don’t they have? Coping skills. Yep, while today’s children are remarkably more accomplished than kids past – seemingly a bunch of black belts who speak multiple languages and have already started their own charity – they struggle with how to handle difficult personal situations.

Where I didn’t expect to find advice on this topic was The LEGO NINJAGO Movie. But sure enough, five minutes into the film I was surprised and delighted to hear Jackie Chan utter over and over again a key method in distress tolerance: “change your point of view.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Chan’s character is Master Wu, the wise-minded sensei who teaches the Ninjas to develop their fighting skills and words of wisdom to develop their character. When Chan speaks those five life-changing words – “change your point of view” – he is an antique shop owner speaking to a boy who attracts more bullies than friends. Soon, though, we’re introduced to the animated world of LEGO NINJAGO, and see a more extreme situation with high school student Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco).

Lloyd’s estranged father is Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), an evil overlord focused on attacking, destroying and conquering his hometown, Ninjago Island. In Lloyd’s case, the apple falls far from the tree – Lloyd is secretly the Green Ninja, protecting and defending the city – but no one knows and Lloyd is ostracized, berated, and teased nearly every moment of the day because of his infamous dad.

Thus, the second insightful plot point: what to do with a parent your community sees as a loser – and they see you in the same light. More than 5 million children have had a parent in prison, 8 million children live with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol, and countless children are growing up with a parent who is suffering from mental health issues. So, Lloyd’s struggle may be an extreme version of what millions of children are experiencing, but it’s relatable in ways many of us could never estimate.

At a press conference for the film, The LEGO NINJAGO Movie producer Chris McKay and director Charlie Bean told me why they thought it was important to include the idea of shifting perspective in the story. “[Lloyd] looks at his relationship with his father one way: that he’s an antagonist, that his father is a problem that he needs to solve,” says McKay. “He goes through a change because he looks at his father with a different point of view.”

As Lloyd and his evil overlord father find themselves forced together, they learn more about one another. The father and son are able to develop a relationship while never changing who they are, but rather, changing their perspective in a way that allows them to appreciate each other.

McKay explains that Lloyd essentially grows up during the film and a big part of becoming an adult is the ability to empathize. “The idea of looking at people and sympathizing with people, sympathizing with what his dad went through, observing what his dad went through, that’s a big part of his change. Then, that way, he can help his friends and become a better leader.”

The change-your-point-of-view directive plays out for the other ninja as well, who start the film by using their cool Mech suits and machinery to fight Garamadon. However, director Charlie Bean says, “What Jackie [Master Wu] is trying to teach [the ninjas] is that you have a much greater power inside you, and to look at the problems you’re facing in a different way.”

The LEGO NINJAGO Movie is not a one-message film, however. Other repeatable mantras include:

  • Stay on the Right Path to find inner peace.
  • The Right Path is long, arduous but enlightening.
  • The power is inside you.
  • Being different doesn’t mean you can’t do great things.
  • To be a master, you need patience, hard work, and courage.

The guidance is better received through The LEGO NINJAGO Movie than a lecture because kids can see the lessons play out. Plus, it is all delivered with humor and, in some cases, a very clever payoff.

The reward for moms may be that by movie’s end, Lloyd’s arms aren’t just opened to his bad dad, his eyes are also opened to all that his mother has done for him and he…actually…appreciates her! I welled up with wistful tears. If only.

Lest we forget, all of these necessary, needed mantras are embedded in a LEGO movie, all of which are meta, silly, funny, sharp, creative, and irreverent yet relevant. The LEGO NINJAGO Movie stays true to its predecessors in keeping the tone, the laughs, and the unexpected rolling.  I find that LEGO movies are some of the best in family film, including Ninjago, because they never let the viewer forget that what’s unfolding on screen is literally child’s play.

LEGOs aren’t just “STEAM” toys, they offer imaginative play. The audience is reminded of that when sharks are used as weapons and the accompanying sound effect is a character’s voice saying “nom nom nom,” or bullets are “pew pew, pew pew pew,” or the Ultimate Weapon is something a child might find in his own house rather than some sort of super-sized bazooka. When violence occurs in the LEGO world, young viewers know it is just pretend – buildings can be rebuilt, ripped off arms can be popped back into place, and no one really dies because they’re all toys. It’s actually more comforting than a Toy Story film, where the anthropomorphic cast could really be destroyed by a destructive child or an incinerator.

Those unfamiliar with LEGO NINJAGO may find details in the film confusing – like why Zane is a robot who is also a classmate and a ninja, how Lloyd is related to Wu, why Wu and Garmadon are enemies, etc. Additionally, jokes are made about how Garmadon got four arms, which presents another fantastic instance of building empathy through comedy, but the answer only creates more questions if you don’t know the Ninjago canon.

Additionally, I’m not sure The LEGO NINJAGO Movie will be entertaining to adults with no kids and/or no understanding of Ninjago, but we thought it was hilarious. I’ve seen the film twice now – the first time with three 7-year-old boys, the second just with my son – and we all loved it. In both screenings, my son danced throughout the credits to the “Dance of Doom” and other catchy original music (fingers crossed “Dance of Doom” could possibly get a Best Original Song Academy Award nomination – just so they perform it during the stuffy ceremony).

The film offers just one potential concern for parents: what the ratings board calls “rude” language. The word “stupid” is said a few times, as is “dum-dum” and “your butt stinks,” etc. – all used by the bad guy in a way that kids (and you!) will laugh at…and very likely repeat. The reason it’s funny, though, is that with their laughter, kids are acknowledging that adults shouldn’t say those things…so take comfort in that.

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The second screening and press conference I attended also involved a visit to LEGOLAND for me and my son, Tate – and a stay at THE LEGOLAND Hotel. These are Tate’s two favorite places on earth. I had my own change of perspective during the event. I saw that 7-year-old Tate, unlike his two shy older siblings, has no issue walking up and talking to authority figures:

  • In the “Little Lloyd” photo opportunity – where around 100 children dressed like Lloyd and stood with Dave Franco – Tate made sure in the aftermath that he talked to “Lloyd” about a few things, and I was happy to see Franco stopped to have a brief conversation with him.
  • Later, at a photo op with all of the stars of the film, I went to “collect” him and, sure enough, there’s Tate, engrossed in a conversation with Jackie Chan, Olivia Munn, Kamail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Franco and director Charlie Bean. Having interviewed hundreds of celebrities myself and sticking to the don’t-bother-them-except-during-the-interview method of reporting, I was amazed they all stopped and actually seemed delighted to be talking to my little guy.
  • During the press conference, Tate had a question to ask (see sidebar) – which was well received by the cast and the audience.
  • Finally, as we were enjoying the final hour at LEGOLAND, who enters the line behind us for The Dragon Roller Coaster, but Justin Theroux, the voice of Garamadon. Remembering him from the press conference, Tate asked Theroux questions about where his other two arms were. Theroux replied his extra appendages were “tucked away right now,” indicating he had them under his jacket. Tate asked if he could take them out and Theroux said, “I would, but it’s just a whole thing to get them out and then put them back up, so I’d rather not.” Tate whispered to me, “Mommy, can I ride with Garmadon?” I said, “He’s with his friends, let’s just let him be.” Later, I realized: why did I stop him from asking? This kid doesn’t need my “help” when it comes to hanging with people of influence.

In other words, it took a trip to LEGOLAND to learn that when it comes to establishing relationships, my child is already a Master Builder.

Our kid reporter, 7-year old Tate, asked the questions that are on the mind of young viewers:

TATE:  Do you practice your robot voice at home?

ZACH WOODS (“Zane”):  Well, I was kind of born with a robot voice. I’m a little bit of a stiff in real life.  So, playing a robot wasn’t that hard for me, because sometimes I feel a little robotic day in and day out.  So, it wasn’t too–I didn’t have to practice that much.  Do you have a robot voice?

TATE: Eh-oh ah-oh.

ZACH WOODS (“Zane”):  Well done.

TATE:  I have another question for Garmadon.  Do you–?

JUSTIN THEROUX (“Garmadon”):  –Sure–.

TATE:  –Practice four arms at home?

JUSTIN THEROUX (“Garmadon”):  I have four arms that are taped to my back right–or two arms that are just taped to my back.  So, I do have four arms in real life.

MICHAEL PENA (“Jay”):  But they’re little arms.

JUSTIN THEROUX (“Garmadon”):  They’re just–they’re only like this big and they’re right on the side.

OLIVIA MUNN (“Koko”):  They’re LEGO size arms.

JUSTIN THEROUX(“Garmadon”):  I tape them down when I’m in life.

The LEGO NINJAGO Movie is in theaters this Friday, Sept. 22.

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