There comes a point in every parent’s life when a horrible, yet obvious, truth emerges: children’s entertainment is garbage. Anyone currently reading this while their kid is surfing YouTube (watch out for Momo) or binge-watching Paw Patrol (dammit Marshall, get your act together) knows what I’m talking about. As much as my generation retains fond memories of Polka Dot Door and Mr. Dressup, we mostly grew up in a wasteland of animated trash. And now our children are experiencing much the same: marketing masked as narrative, inanity disguised as life lessons, aesthetic laziness courtesy of sanitized and soulless computer animation. But there is hope - and in the most unlikeliest of corners. I, of course, am talking about Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu.
Wait, don’t leave. I can see the argument you’re forming. Ninjago is a television series produced by Lego, about Lego, made to sell Lego. This is true, and I can testify to the fact that I have spent so much money - more than I ever expected to spend on objects whose sole goal seems to perforate my feet - on everything and anything to do with Ninjago: the Monastery Training set, the Samurai X vehicle, the Airjitsu Kai mini-figure (twice on the latter, thanks to the tiny objects’ habit of disappearing into couch cushions, never to be seen again). Ninjago is a 10-season-long commercial for one of the world’s most expensive toy-lines. Yet, its crass existence is consistently and miraculously outweighed by the imagination of and creative powers behind the long-running series. Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu should be terrible, but it is instead one of the more enjoyably complex and mythology-heavy series out there - no matter whether you’re the babysitter or the babysat.
First, a point of clarification: I am not referring to the 2017 feature film The Lego Ninjago Movie, which was Warner Brothers’s third attempt to wring cash from the success of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord’s everything-is-awesome The Lego Movie. The Lego Ninjago Movie features many of the same characters as the TV series, and it is far more beautiful to look at. Like all big-screen Lego outings, it presents a zippy world made entirely out of multicoloured bricks, from characters to houses to trees to cereal boxes. Masters of Spinjitzu, on the other hand, features animated Lego mini-figures front and centre but is otherwise composed of the same cheaply executed CG backgrounds as Paw Patrol or Dinotrux, or whatever. But where Ninjago the movie is repetitive and predictable - and relies on the voices of familiar-to-adult actors (Dave Franco! Justin Theroux doing his best Will Arnett!) to compensate for a dearth of well-crafted jokes - Ninjago the TV series is some kind of delightful brand of bananas-brilliant.
Although it starts off slow - in the Hong Kong-esque title city of Ninjago, the wise old Seinsei Wu trains five teenage ninjas, each possessing the power to master an earthly element such as fire, ice, etc. - the series quickly reveals its idiosyncratic influences. As show-runners Michael Hegner and Tommy Andreasen introduce hundreds of supporting characters and pile on the twists and cliffhangers, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu begins to feel like a bizarre stew of Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Five Deadly Venoms and a little bit of the forgotten-by-everyone-except-me-and-Bruce-Greenwood mid-1990s series Nowhere Man. Despite Ninjago being aimed at the younger-than-10 set, this is not one-and-done episodic television. The show encompasses time travel, alternate dimensions, ancient prophecies, characters who flip between good and evil on the regular, a season-long homage to the Mortal Kombat movie (yes), and even a Cthulhu-esque villain (double yes). Continuity is key, and there are points that ask viewers to be familiar with seemingly throw-away moments from three seasons prior in order to understand the significance of a new plot development.
Perhaps I’m making Ninjago’s storytelling out to be more sophisticated than it actually is. After all, my four-year-old son and his friends seem to follow it just fine - from White Ninja Zane’s journey toward realizing he’s actually an android (or nindroid, for those in the know) to Black Ninja Cole’s transformation into a ghost with corporeal powers. More likely, TV producers and parents simply underestimate how much children desire, and are able to process, complicated stories. Or at least more complex stories than whatever quick-bite antics Paw Patrol’s tiny dictator Ryder is forcing upon his stable of puppy servants.
In many ways, though, Ninjago is the most impressively realized cartoon series to come along since The Pirates of Dark Water or the Canadian production Reboot. Both were outliers of the 1990s entertainment landscape, in that they had more on their mind than selling toys (although they each did that with gusto), and both possessed admirably challenging sensibilities that suggested to their young viewers that the world was larger and darker than they’d been led to believe.
Ninjago was recently taken off of Netflix Canada, prompting a moment of high-volume crisis in my household, only rectified when I discovered it was also available on iTunes. And as much as I dislike having to pay more money for content that I was led to believe was already part of my digital-entertainment world forever and ever, Ninjago is worth any extra dollar. For my son, certainly, but also for myself. If I’m going to let a TV show (briefly) parent my child, it should look after me, too.