LEGO Ninjago has a long and storied history you definitely didn't know about

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Sep 20, 2017

With its quirky blend of computer graphics and stop-motion animation and fourth (brick) wall-breaking narrative, The LEGO Movie took the popularity of LEGOs to a new height. It was a box office smash, inspired a generation of new brick builders, and rekindled the interest of generations of LEGO fanatics. 

Last year, The LEGO Batman Movie gave a unique commentary on the Dark Knight, parodizing and celebrating in ways that no live action film has been able to do.

So what can we expect of the second spinoff, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which opens up the world of Ninjago to a much larger audience while trying to give longtime fans something new to experience?

What's that? You were unaware of Ninjago's legacy? Don't even know how to say "Ninjago" correctly (it's pronounced, Nin-Jah-Go)? Don't know why they would make a LEGO Movie spinoff with Ninjago in the first place? Well before we get into explaining why we are days away from a LEGO Ninjago movie, let's travel back in LEGO history and explain how Ninjago became a thing.

One of the things you'll hear from LEGO haters is, "All they do is just make licensed building sets," but that's not true. LEGO didn't really start getting into the licensed building sets until 1999, nearly 30 years after it began its empire, when it landed Star Wars. It has been gobbling up everything licenses since, from tentpole movie tie-ins like Harry Potter, Pirates of the Carribbean, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender to Marvel and DC Comics superheroes, to The Beatles and Doctor Who.

Anyone who really knows the legacy of the toy brick company would tell you that its been doing original themes since their inception, and their longest running theme: LEGO City or LEGO Town dates back to 1972. The engineering line LEGO: Technics goes back to 1977. If you were a child of the 1980s and/or 1990s, you would have known LEGOs for one of its four main themes: Space, Castle, City, and Pirates. Oh and yes, there was its bigger Duplo blocks, which were aimed at the toddlers.

Over the last 25 years, LEGO has made sets based on different periods in history Vikings to Aquazone to Pharaoh's Quest, broadening the scope of imagination with a sense of world adventure and culture. In the 2000s, LEGO branched out with its own successful franchises that included Bionicle, Legend of Chima, Hero Factory, and Atlantis amongst others, that not only had building sets, but computer-animated television shows, video games and direct-to-video movies with full storylines.

Ninjago is one of LEGO's long running, home-grown franchises, and is arguably its most successful one, which justifies the new movie treatment. It could be traced back as far as 1998 when LEGO put out a series called LEGO: Ninja, which was built on Feudalistic Japan, with different colored clans of ninja warriors, fortresses, wheeled catapults and horse-drawn weaponry etc. Some of the foundation of LEGO: Ninja came from the LEGO: Castle theme, which has been off and on in some form or fashion since 1978. But also the basic molds for Ninjago, and the helmets of the villains came from these early minifigures. 

LEGO: Ninja lasted for about two years and again, was replaced in 2000 by LEGO: Knights. The franchise was revised and retooled in 2010 to early 2011 with LEGO Ninjago Masters of Spinjitzu, which took some of the concepts of LEGO: Ninja — including its feudalistic principles — and added dragons, spirits, and those fortress settings but fused a modern-day sensibility as well. Fans not only got toys but a story with a simple hook and a television show that roped in kids to the circus like a ringmaster.

LEGO created a story that targeted its main audience at the time, young pre-teen boys, and gave them a band of characters that was modeled off of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: four main students, one master and a complicated tapestry of heroes and villains that are inter-related. 

We were introduced to five main characters: Cole (Master of Earth, voiced by Kirby Morrow), Jay (Master of Lightning, Michael Adamthwaite), Kai (Master of Fire, Vincent Tong) and Zane (Master of Ice, Brent Miller) along with their sensei, Master Wu (Paul Dobson). The team was focused on stopping the evil Lord Garmadon (Mark Oliver) from collecting the coveted four Golden Weapons of Spinjitzu.

That was the premise of the 2011 television pilot, which got a sequel and a full season with the “Rise of the Snakes” prophecy storyline, in which a ninja would rise above all the others: the Green Ninja (Jillian Michaels) who would grow in power to defeat the Overlord, aka Garmadon. The Green Ninja would be later revealed to be Lloyd Garmadon, Lord Garmadon’s son. This would be the basic launching point for The LEGO Ninjago Movie.

There are currently seven seasons (74 episodes) of the Cartoon Network show LEGO Ninjago Masters of Spinjitzu. Of course, each season was accompanied by several corresponding Lego building sets. Over time, they have kicked up the dragon aspect, brought in modern day vehicles, futuristic ones, and have escalated to full-on exo-suits and mech-robots. Subsequent storylines brought in state-of-the-art technology, robotic Nindroid Armies, ghost armies, and most recently in the latest season, the Time Blades were introduced, which are weapons that can stop, slow and jump time.

Kai’s younger sister Nya (Kelly Metzger) became a prominent character and earned the title of Master of Water. There is an eighth season in production, titled “Sons of Garmadon” and the opening sequence dropped at San Diego Comic-Con without any sound effects or music, as it is still a work in progress:

Now there are graphic novels, several video games, an interactive ride at Legoland, and more merchandise than seems possible. Counting the new movie tie-in building toys, there is a catalog of 120 Lego building sets just for Ninjago since 2011.

How much of all of it is needed for the movie? To be honest, none of it. The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not a prequel or a sequel. It requires no prior knowledge of the Ninjago world in any medium, though there is sure to be some inside jokes.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie will be more of an introduction to the Ninjago world, with the 3D computer animated-stop motion blend aesthetic, set in the context of the The LEGO Movie universe, in the similar way The LEGO Batman Movie did a year ago. Ninjago is just another far off world in The LEGO Movie universe, which Emmitt could theoretically visit.

Brothers Dan and Kevin Hageman, who wrote LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu animated series and co-wrote The LEGO Movie, wrote this film as well. This new take is being directed by Charlie Bean, who produced the cult animated series Tron: Uprising. Other LEGO Movie alums including Dan Lin, Roy Lee, Phil Lord and Chris Miller will serve as producers.

The voice cast is new too, as Jackie Chan headlines as Master Wu, Dave Franco is Lloyd, Michael Pena is Kai, Kumail Nanjani is Jay, Zach Woods is Zane, Fred Armisen is Cole, and Abbi Jacobson is Nya. Justin Theroux plays Lord Garmadon, Olivia Munn is Koko, Lord Garmadon’s ex-wife and Lloyd’s mother.