How Lego Series ‘Ninjago: Dragons Rising’ Breathed Fire Into the 13-Year-Old Franchise

Ninjas have never been out of vogue but between last year’s Turtles animated feature “Mutant Mayhem” and the recently-released Netflix series “House of Ninjas,” it’s fair to say they’re having a moment.

Not that your average “Ninjago” fan (average age 6-8) would care about whether or not ninjas are in vogue. Since launching simultaneously as a show and product 13 years ago, the Lego-originated IP has spawned 16 seasons, 235 episodes, a 2017 feature film starring Jackie Chan, theme park attractions and, of course, plenty of toys.

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In 2023 “Ninjago” was semi-rebooted under a fresh title “Ninjago: Dragons Rising,” which introduced new characters and story arcs. In part the change came about because the “Ninjago” universe was so vast there was no easy access point for a new generation of kids. “There’s so much material, it’s our longest running show,” says Asa Tait, head of production at Lego’s entertainment division and an exec producer on “Dragons Rising.” “[The new show is] a place and a story where you can come in fresh and feel like this is a world that stands on its own.”

The reboot also gave the creative team at Canada-based content company WildBrain, who make the show, an opportunity to update – and up — the production values by moving the show onto Unreal Engine while Wildbrain’s art director Daniel Wang refined the animation. “Daniel developed a stylized, sculpted look to give the show a subtle, painterly feel,” explains series director Richard Johnson. “And then we enhanced this further with cinematic lighting and some CG effects that were available to us in Unreal.”

The inherent problem with “Ninjago” as a concept is that in real life Lego minifigs can only swing their arms and legs forward and backwards – making it a challenge to portray them as lithe and graceful ninjas. “They’re so angular and boxy and we’re using multiple forms of martial arts,” Johnson acknowledges. Animation techniques such as squash and stretch and lighting help to mitigate that somewhat. Wang also gave the characters’ torsos “a little bit of shape, so they’re not completely flat,” Johnson adds. “It allowed the characters to catch light” giving the production a more cinematic feel. Conversely, the dragons were designed to look more angular to match the product.

Tait describes the relationship between the show and the toy as synchronous, with both the product designers and writers having input in both directions. “There are definitely times when product design is driving this, they’ve come up with something amazing that they’ve tested and kids love,” he explains. “There have definitely also been times when we’re in a room cracking story and the writers come up with a character that everybody falls in love with. And that character was never meant to necessarily be a minifig but now they are.” Tait cites Season 1 breakout Wyldfyre (voiced by Kazumi Evans) as an example. “That was a character purely created for the show that did not come from the design side. But as [the writers] were talking about it, the designers were sketching and being inspired and thinking like, ‘Oh, this is really cool. What can we do with this?’”

Having set the characters and tone for the first season, the second season (which drops today on Netflix in the U.S. and ITVX in the U.K.) was an “easier” proposition, according to Johnson. The creative team – including writers Doc Wyatt and Kevin Burke — knew there was definitely going to be more then one season, enabling them to create some foreshadowing and develop longer story arcs.

Although Tait wouldn’t reveal how many seasons of “Dragons Rising” fans can expect, he did say there is a multi-season story mapped out. “We wanted to create a space where we could keep throwing these wild new ideas at the world but also be telling one story that’s continuous across the length of the show,” he says. As for a feature film: “I wouldn’t say no.”

Even with the high-volume series (both seasons of “Dragons Rising” run to 20 episodes), the show maintains a cinematic quality that is in equal parts down to the writing and the production, including lighting and voice acting (“Our voice talent is amazing,” says Johnson. “I’m usually crying in the booth when they’re recording.”)

“Doc and Kevin and really the whole writing team really do take these characters and this world seriously,” says Tait. “They really respect kids and that shows. They don’t talk down to kids. They understand that kids that age are maybe going through more than a lot of shows might give them credit for and don’t shy away from representing that and engaging with some of that in the show.”

Given its longevity, the franchise has amassed a sizeable teenage and adult audience too, but the writers ensure they’re focused on the 6 to 8 year old demographic. Even so, among the themes “Dragons Rising” tackles is friendship, betrayal, loss and frustration. “You can go through grief and disappointment and confusion about where your life is going even when you’re eight years old,” Tait points out. “Those are universal themes.”

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