By Caz Armstrong
“The Lego Ninjago Movie” (2017) is funny and bright with a strong message at the core. But if it’s a representative of a universal playtime fantasy we have some serious issues on our hands. Playtime doen’t really include women and girls.
Lloyd (Dave Franco) is a Lego teenager who happens to be the son of evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). He’s also secretly a Ninjago warrior, along with friends Nya, Zane, Jay, Cole and Kai. Together they must battle to defeat evil Lord Garmadon and find their inner peace (inner Lego piece, get it!) on the way. Together they defeat the Ultimate Weapon – a cat called Meowthra – and Garmadon’s evil plans.
This is a fun film. Funny, colourful, playful, and self-aware. But it falls into the trap of being aimed at all children but focuses on male characters to the notable exclusion of female ones. There is just one female Ninjago in the group of six, Nya (Abbi Jacobson). It wouldn’t have affected the storyline at all to give the group an equal representation of genders and it would have given girls in the audience more opportunity to engage with the film on a more personal level.
As an example of how representation in films is compounded in the real world, following the release of the film Legoland theme park in the UK held a promotion whereby any children who had the same name as one of the main characters could get in for free. Five of the six main characters are boys. The likelihood of any girl called Nya getting in for free was miniscule compared to the likelihood that a boy might be called either Lloyd, Kai, Jay, Zane or Cole.
“The female characters themselves were not actually represented particularly poorly and did have some strong feminist traits. But without the depth to back it up some of their lines become “faux feminist” – tacked on to make it look like the filmmakers are trying, but they’re ultimately empty and tokenistic.”
Evil Lord Garmadon did have a few female generals and the town mayor was female. But these are very minor parts, far outweighed by the number and depth of male characters.
On top of the lack of female characters there is something of a sexist plot hole. A key plotline is the fact that Lloyd famously can’t catch or throw because his father didn’t teach him. Fathers and sons playing catch is a whimsical childhood trope, and tropes work as shorthand because we can all understand the subtext. But Lloyd was still raised by his mother Koko (Olivia Munn) who could have taught him how to do that. Not only that, she was a secret Ninjago to so was more than qualified and capable. But she’s not his father so it doesn’t count.
The joke clearly didn’t have sexist intent, it was a play on a father’s role and Lloyd’s clumsiness. The problem is that any life skill could have been taught by his mother Koko but she doesn’t influence the narrative in any meaningful way.
The female characters themselves were not actually represented particularly poorly and did have some strong feminist traits. But without the depth to back it up some of their lines become “faux feminist” – tacked on to make it look like the filmmakers are trying, but they’re ultimately empty and tokenistic. Nya is referred to in the introduction as “the girl ninja” and the narrator is then swiftly taken down by Nya. This is supposed to be a funny comment about the lack of female representation in similar films and Nya’s gets the last laugh with her righteous retaliation for such a sexist comment.
“The film is presented as something for all children while neglecting female characters which makes for a frustrating watch for everyone who noticed.”
But she IS “the girl ninja” amongst five boys. You can’t make an “ironic” comment like that with one hand and still maintain heavily skewed representation with the other. All it shows is that you want the kudos for being aware of the problem but are still actively maintaining it. It throws a faux feminist bone to the audience without making any effort to actually make a difference.
On the whole the film is incredibly funny for both adults and children. The casting is superb and the voice work is spot on. At the core there are really positive messages about family, finding your inner strengths and belonging. But the film is presented as something for all children while neglecting female characters which makes for a frustrating watch for everyone who noticed.
Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars