Sonic the Hedgehog

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Jim Carrey

Director: Jeff Fowler

Writers: Pat Casey, Josh Miller


Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t get off to a great start last year when the first trailer dropped and revealed its much-derided design of the titular speedster, complete with photorealistic blue fur, a set of human-like teeth, and an overall rodent-like physical demeanour. Paramount thus resolved to push the film’s release back to 2020 so that their underpaid animating team could work overtime on designing an avatar closer to the video game hero’s cartoonish appearance and incorporate it into the otherwise finished film. This isn’t exactly a case like All the Money in the World where an 11th hour casting change required entire scenes to be reshot on a few day’s notice. One would assume here that Sonic’s appearance is a purely aesthetic issue and, barring errors in the transition from one design to the other, the film itself should remain fundamentally the same. If it is indeed the case that the cut of the movie with the ‘corrected’ design currently in theatres is in essence the same as it was always going to be, then the grotesque original design ought to be understood as a warning of what was to come. The problems with Sonic the Hedgehog are more than aesthetic, what we have here is an adaptation of an ever popular video game franchise that has fundamentally misunderstood the basic appeal of its own source material.

Even as video games get more cinematic with each passing year, Hollywood has yet to fully crack the formula for translating them into a filmic form. While some have managed to break the mould by attaining a ‘pretty good’ level of quality (the two most recent examples that I’ve enjoyed are Detective Pikachu and Tomb Raider), most of them still tend to fall between the ‘okay I suppose’ and ‘just bad’ categories. And yet, whether it’s in Prince of Persia, Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed, what you’ll often find is that these films are at least attempting to engage with the original material and to replicate what fans loved about it in the first place. For all that Sonic the Hedgehog has in common with the Sega video games, the movie is spiritually closer to Uwe Boll’s filmography and the 1993 Super Mario Bros. than it is to any of the preceding examples. A character who became famous for speeding, jumping and looping his way through a colourful world full of other cutesy characters is dropped into a film that has him spending the whole second act on a road trip to San Francisco in a pick-up truck. Rather than exploring the cartoon world at its disposal (which, if you don’t remember the game, includes a casino-themed city), this movie goes the same route as The Smurfs by taking the action to our world and having the animated hedgehog interact with live-action people. Rather than making a Sonic the Hedgehog movie, what the studio has turned in is nothing more than a generic kid’s movie about some guy called Sonic.

Sonic (as voiced by Ben Schwartz) is a super-fast hedgehog from another world who is told by his guardian to go into hiding for fear that others might hunt him down and exploit his abilities for nefarious purposes. Using the magic gold rings Sonic is able to travel instantaneously to far-off planets, which is how he winds up in the rural town of Green Hills, Montana. There he lives in secret but, for all his effort to keep a low profile, the inquisitive creature becomes enamoured with the local residents and will often spend his days spying on them. His favourites of the bunch are Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), or ‘Donut Lord’ as Sonic calls him, and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), or ‘The Pretzel Lady’, whom the hyperactive furball will often join on their movie nights (not that they know he’s there peering through the window). When he inadvertently causes a large-scale power outage while on a supersonic spree, the government sends the mad but brilliant scientist and inventor Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to investigate. A mishap causes Sonic to lose his golden ring portals, compelling him to reveal himself to Sheriff Tom and appeal to him for his help. Together they have to get to San Francisco and recover the rings before Dr. Robotnik can catch Sonic and harness his superspeed for… world domination I guess? That’s usually what it is.

Somewhere in there is a workable premise for a Sonic movie. We have a crisis, a goal, and an antagonist in pursuit. Sonic’s defining quality is that he’s “the fastest thing alive”, so it stands to reason that the most cinematic form his story could possibly take is that of a chase movie. Had they opted to set the movie in Sonic’s own fantasy world then perhaps we could have been treated to something along the lines of Speed Racer or Mad Max: Fury Road. By setting the movie in the real world however, screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller aren’t at liberty to go down that route. In order to keep Sheriff Tom in the picture and have him form the other half of a buddy movie with an alien rodent who could run to California in two seconds flat if he wanted to, the movie has to keep contriving for ways to keep Sonic on a leash and to have their road trip last for the amount of time it takes to drive across the Pacific Northwest in a family vehicle. Even with their lives on the line, the movie still allows the pair a detour to a redneck bar where they join in some line dancing, ride one of those buckaroo horse machines, and stir up some trouble while enjoying a little odd couple bonding time. Of all the ways that a Sonic movie could have been approached, it baffles me that this was the direction they chose.

On top of that the movie doesn’t appear to have a very firm grip on Sonic as a character. Having lived on Earth for quite a few years he seems to be pretty with it when it comes to American pop culture (his favourite movie is Speed and he makes a quip about Amazon drones amongst other things) yet the film still tries to frame him as a fish out of water by having him be clueless about other facets of human society (like not understanding what a dog is). They also never really find a way to make his speed work for the film. Whenever we see him on the run, it’s either at a moderate distance and therefore from a detached perspective, it’s slowed down to ensure that we can get a clear look at him, or it’s done for comic effect by having him disappear and reappear as if he were teleporting. A high-speed chase ought to be exciting in the same way that watching Superman fly or watching Neo fight ought to be, but Sonic the Hedgehog never is. They do have a couple of bullet time scenes like with Quicksilver in X-Men where time goes to a standstill while Sonic zooms about to rearrange everything in the room, but the trouble is that those scenes (a) work as comedy but not as action and (b) raise questions about how Dr. Robotnik can possibly keep up with Sonic as he pursues him through the streets of San Francisco.

If the movie has a saving grace, it’s Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey for the first time in years. With his bizarre expressions, haphazard line deliveries and whacky postures and movements, he brings the exact right level of 90s Saturday morning cartoon villain energy to the role. Whether it’s a cheesy zinger, an expression of his evilness, or simply a line of exposition, Carrey makes a meal out of each and every last syllable, soaring gleefully between rapid-fire monologues to maniacal shouting. It is in his performance alone that we see even a glimpse of the movie that this should have been. Marsden and Sumpter are both agreeable enough as the straight man and woman and the chemistry they shared had me wishing they could have done without their CGI co-star and just made the movie a small-town rom-com that somehow still has Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik in it, but alas it wasn’t to be. Marsden’s character is given his own arc about wanting to leave his job as the sheriff of this safe and boring town and become a cop in a city where he can do some real police work and is framed as being selfish because of it. This is done in an attempt to tie his arc together with Sonic’s, whose greatest want is to not be alone anymore, but the film is as confused about how to make it work as it is about what Sonic ought to look like in a Sonic the Hedgehog movie. The closest thing this film has to a message seems to be “friends are good and therefore you should never leave your hometown”.

For his part Schwarz gives what he can to the material he’s given, most of it simply overused platitudes and lame one-liners, and the performance he delivers is let down by the sound department who never rework it into something that doesn’t sound like it was delivered in a recording booth. The impression that this gives is of a movie where everybody, save Carrey who always gives 100% no matter what, was going through the motions in making a harmless kids film and nothing more. Everything about it from the generic setting to the cookie-cutter jokes to the atypical action looks and feels like something that was designed by a committee (which it definitely was) to rake in a reliable profit and do nothing else. Sonic the Hedgehog is as inoffensive as it is unimaginative and the result is yet another blockbuster that kids and grown ups alike will watch once to distract themselves and then forget about as soon as they leave the theatre. We should perhaps be thankful that it wasn’t the atrocity that the first trailer promised it to be, and fair play to the animators who made the swap to the updated design as seamless as it was, but for the budget they had to work with and the wealth of material they must have after dozens of video games, TV shows and comics with this character, this cannot be the best they could possibly have dreamt up.

★★

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Director: Cathy Yan

Writer: Christina Hodson


While female-led blockbusters have become a little more fashionable lately and Hollywood studios have gotten a little better at allowing them to be written and directed by actual human women, there still remains a pretty narrow framework through which these films are allowed to express their ideas of femininity. While once in a blue moon we do get a smash hit like Mad Max: Fury Road that manages to sneak in some thoughtful and provocative feminist themes, the trend you tend to see in these kinds of movies, including such recent examples as last year’s Captain Marvel and Alita: Battle Angel, is that badass woman beating up bad man equals empowerment. Birds of Prey, the second female-led blockbuster in DC’s proposed cinematic universe (a scheme they’ve all but abandoned at this point), is far from a masterpiece but, thematically speaking, I do think it is a step closer in the right direction. The ‘Girl Power’ message is there but it goes far beyond the superficial, patriarchal-approved gestures that studios include in expectation of nominal feminist endorsement to deliver something subtler and more nuanced. This is a film where the all-female team up comes about not just out of necessity but also out of an unspoken unity and empathy that they all feel for having lived a shared female experience in a world dominated by powerful men. It’s not the most groundbreaking of messages but the little touches that director Cathy Yan adds go a long way in what is otherwise a pretty fun superhero romp.

As the subtitle would suggest, the true star of this ensemble piece is one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the psychopathic clown whose life has been reduced to tatters after being dumped by the Joker (Jared Leto). Kicked to the curb and a blubbering mess, she resolves to give herself some ‘me’ time and engages in your typical post-breakup rituals: cutting her hair, partying with her friends, breaking a goon’s legs, getting a pet hyena and indulging herself with junk food. The only thing she doesn’t do is tell anybody that she and Mr. J aren’t together any longer. If it became known to Gotham City’s undesirables that she is no longer under the protection of the fearsome clown, then suddenly it would become open season for those who have a grudge against Harley (of which there are many). That is until Harley overhears some friends mocking her for her denial and decides to cut ties with her ex for good by blowing up the chemical factory where they first declared their undying love to each other, an explosive move that she’s confident will have absolutely no negative repercussions for her whatsoever. At that point Harley becomes a target not just for the Gotham police but also for Roman Sionus (Ewan McGregor, camping it up), a bloodthirsty and conceited mob boss who has a score to settle with Harley and a stolen fortune to score.

This all revolves around a much-desired diamond that street urchin Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) unintentionally lifts from the pocket of Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), Roman’s right hand man. Harley volunteers to recover the diamond in exchange for her life but must race against the rest of Gotham in her pursuit. Amongst those also searching for Cassandra are Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer with a killer voice, Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), a veteran cop with little patience left for bureaucratic bullshit, and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding avenger with a socially awkward personality. The story seems routine enough except it’s all told from the warped perspective of Harley Quinn whose manic commentary, singular perspective and rambling digressions prevent any of it from feeling too stale. The plot does essentially boil down to an hour of backstory and Macguffin chasing that eventually climaxes with the squad finally getting together in the third act, but the whole thing is depicted with such gleeful abandon from the idiosyncratic, unreliable POV of its psychotic narrator that you don’t really notice or care. Birds of Prey demonstrates itself to be very much Harley Quinn’s movie with its vibrant colours, its use of pop-art title cards when introducing her many enemies and their respective “grievances”, and the odd fantasy-dream sequence in which she escapes the world for a while to enjoy an animated recounting of her adolescent years or a song-and-dance number (with a call back to McGregor’s Moulin Rouge!).

Bringing the whole thing to life is Cathy Yan who exhibits the same capability for mixing erratic humour with grisly violence that Tim Miller brought to Deadpool. Perhaps the film could have afforded to go even crazier than it did (a story told from Harley Quinn’s perspective really ought to look like something out of FX’s Legion) but the stylistic choices we do get, from the needle drops to the action scenes, are presented by Yan with admirable confidence. The climatic fight scene in particular packs a real punch thanks to the fluid camerawork on display and the fun-filled, acrobatic choreography throughout, a welcome break from the frantically edited, muddily coloured, computer generated action you tend to get from the MCU movies. Most crucially, I think, Yan also breaks Harley Quinn free from the male gaze of Suicide Squad that turned her into such a fetishized object. She and the rest of her female co-stars are free to enjoy themselves without any perverse framing inviting the viewer to ogle and objectify them. The scene where this was most apparent was when a vindictive Roman vents his frustrations by forcing some poor woman to strip for him. Throughout this uncomfortable scene I kept waiting for the ‘money shot’, so to speak; the gratuitous wide shot of her humiliation and violation that would undoubtedly have been there had a male director filmed it. Instead Yan focuses on McGregor’s reaction, which gives us all we need to feel discomforted. It’s a small touch, but it makes all the difference.

Robbie (who in Bombshell had a similar scene that lingered on her humiliation to a perverted degree) is as always on top form as the homicidal harlequin. She wisely plays up Harley’s most cartoonish traits, her exaggerated Brooklyn accent, extravagant mood swings, and fourth-wall breaking tendencies, to a positively absurdist degree. Even if you don’t take to her character at first she will either win you over with her charm or wear you down with her persistence. As well as being equal parts delightful, insufferable and horrific, this movie also allows her to display a layer of ambivalence, vulnerability and warmth that, rather than dismissed as weaknesses, serve to humanise her both in our eyes and in those of (some of) the other characters. Still, even being the psychopath that she is, there is a clear line the film is unwilling to cross for the sake of allowing her to remain likeable. One scene has her raiding a police station armed with a bazooka that fires non-lethal beanies and glitter. It’s a fun enough scene and the colourful gas and glimmering glitter do add to the carnivalesque tone of her rampage, but at some point I did find myself asking why Harley was going out of her way not to kill anybody. She’s shown not to have any qualms about killing and is perfectly game to break a man’s legs or feed him to a hyena for minor slights, so the most logical explanation I can think of is that having her commit a full-blown massacre in a police station would have been deemed a step too far for this kind of movie.

The movie’s main flaw is that it takes too long to bring its characters together and doesn’t explore their dynamic as deeply as I’d have liked. There’s certainly chemistry and a good rapport between them that makes their third-act team up work but there are points of focus that could have used some more development. While the main arc would seemingly be about Harley’s titular emancipation, they seemed to realise at a certain point that they could only go so far with that idea in a story that never sees her ex make an appearance so in the end Harley doesn’t so much break free of her past as she does forget about it. As for Black Canary, Detective Montoya and Huntress, they all get to enjoy enough depth to emerge as more than stock characters who exist to serve the plot. I particularly liked how matter-of-factly the film treats Montoya’s queerness, a trait that matters to her and to the plot but which isn’t made her defining feature. Still some facets, such as Huntress’ quest for vengeance, could have used some more attention rather than be relegated to sub-plots. There are a lot of plot threads and details that the film has to get out in order to make the climatic team-up work, so perhaps letting Harley steal the spotlight to the extent that she did was a misstep in that regard. Still, there’s something to be said for a film that knows what it is, mostly works and often works well. That’s certainly more than can be said for Suicide Squad.

★★★

Dolittle

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand


When you consider the vast amount of collaborative work that goes into making a film of any kind and factor in the endless number of things that can possibly go wrong, it really is a wonder that any great films get made at all. Even the most surefire, well-intentioned movies can go completely wrong with just a little bit of bad luck. Whether it’s a director who simply isn’t right for the project, an actor who has committed themselves to a misguided performance, a script that needed more time before its submission, a studio that refuses to concede any ground, an act of God, or any other number of things, some movies are just doomed to fail. Sometimes things go so badly that the studio is left with no choice but to release a movie that isn’t even finished, which is how we get films like Suicide Squad and Fant4stic. We can only guess what went wrong behind the scenes of Dolittle, a film that was originally to be titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle as directed by Stephen Gaghan (best known for geopolitical thrillers such as Traffic and Syriana (you know, for kids!)) until it was made to undergo extensive, studio-mandated reshoots. Whether it was pulled apart by conflicting ideas and intentions or if the movie Gaghan made was simply unsalvageable, Dolittle is a colossal trainwreck of epic proportions. It is so incoherent in its entirety, so confused in its intention and so disjointed in its construction that I’m honestly unsure if it can technically be considered a film.

To say that Dolittle has a plot would be charitable; it would be more accurate to describe the ‘film’ as a haphazard montage of outtakes and half-finished scenes cobbled together by a blind chimp. The endless 100-minute runtime consists of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a surly and eccentric man with a superhuman ability to talk to animals in a Welsh-ish accent, mumbling and twitching his way from one moment to the next while a collage of celebrity-voiced CGI creatures scramble around him spouting one-liners. The only indicator that one scene has ended and another has begun is a change in the setting. Such backdrops include a derelict mansion that Mrs. Havisham would call untidy, a whimsical ship sailing across the ocean blue, a vaguely Caribbean stronghold city ruled by a pirate king and a hidden cave of mystical secrets. The basic premise compelling him on his travels to these locales is that Queen Victoria (an underutilised Jessie Buckley) has fallen gravely ill and is need of a magical remedy. Joining the good doctor on his quest are his animal compatriots including Polly the maternal parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek), Yoshi the gruff polar bear (John Cena), Plimpton the sarcastic ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and Dab-Dab the scatter-brained duck (Octavia Spencer). Also along for the ride is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young animal-loving boy who steps in as Dolittle’s apprentice.

I think that’s the premise anyway; Dolittle is so cluttered with content and noise that it’s near impossible to make any of it out. Any sort of emotional resonance or thematic exploration that was supposed to be carried all the way through gets lost amidst all the screeches, pratfalls and fart jokes. We get that Dr. Dolittle is an unhinged but brilliant man who has lived in seclusion ever since his wife’s death (because of course our antihero’s backstory includes a tragic romance with a woman who only appears in flashbacks and never speaks a line of dialogue). We therefore do get these vague gestures towards something almost resembling an arc wherein a wounded recluse finds that the only way to heal himself and his animal patients is for them to open themselves and their sanctuary to the outside world, but between Downey Jr.’s bizarre acting choices and the absence of any intelligible character development it’s hard to read even that much into any of it. Playing a character previously depicted on-screen by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy in his first non-Marvel movie since 2014, not even Downey Jr. himself seems to know what he’s supposed to be going for and winds up fumbling into this awkward middle ground between his Ritchie Sherlock and Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow while clumsily maintaining a distractingly inconsistent accent. If ever there was an actor who might have been able to make some sense out of the chaos, it would be him. Sadly, some films are beyond saving.

The problems with Dolittle are legion and we could spend all day dissecting its narrative shortcomings, its weak characterisation and its staggering unfunniness but these are all just symptoms of what’s really wrong with this movie. The real problem is far deeper and more foundational: it is an incomplete film. Dolittle is a failure of filmmaking at its most basic, rudimentary level. Even when given a simple scene of characters talking, be it human to animal or human to human, everything about it feels off. Dialogue is spoken from off-screen or by characters facing away from the camera, eye-lines between the actors and their computer-generated co-stars don’t align, and the continuity between and within scenes is all over the place. Characters such as a dancing orangutan and a guy in stocks called Jeff turn up out of nowhere to deliver a gag only to suddenly disappear, never to be mentioned again. Footage that has been ripped out of its original context and repurposed to fulfil functions and communicate ideas that it was never intended for sticks out like a sore thumb. This is filmmaking 101 stuff we’re talking about and a movie that cannot get them right is no better than a book without any understanding of its own language or a song that cannot sustain its own key, timbre or form. Such rules can and should be defied or broken, but to do so would demand far greater literacy and self-awareness than Dolittle possesses.

I suppose that as far as kids movies go the CG animals are watchable enough; this is the kind of film where it works better if the animals look cutesy and cartoonish than if they look photorealistic. The movie did itself no favours though by casting based more on star power than on vocal talent. Many of the voices are so generic or are so inappropriate for the creature in question (looking at you Malek) that it isn’t always apparent who is saying what in a given scene. Not that learning who said what would be very illuminating given that 90% of the animals’ roles can be broken down to reaction shots and cringeworthy one-liners. The low point for me was probably watching a tiger called Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) scream “My Barry berries” upon being kicked in the groin (yes, that happens). Michael Sheen, who gleefully plays a moustache-twirling villain, appears to be the only actor who truly understands what kind of movie he’s in. What that is, I’m still not sure if I can say. There’s a definite Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckling epic aesthetic it’s going for, but it cannot hope to reconcile that feeling with its more topical, anachronistic elements. These include a whole bunch of modern quips like “snitches get stitches”, an Angry Birds reference, and an ironclad warship that dogs (geddit?) Dolittle and his crew. Again, these are elements that would work better in a movie that has a better idea of what it is but I don’t think Dolittle has a clue.

Dolittle is one of those truly bad films that really put things into perspective. In many of the reviews I’ve read I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being made between this film and Cats. There is a fundamental difference though which is that Cats, for all of the outrageous choices it made in depicting this hellish world inhabited by these grotesque, deranged, hypersexual humanoid cats, knew precisely what kind of movie it was. It may well be the most disturbing film ever made, but it’s also striking, true to itself, and memorable. Dolittle is none of those things; it is just an outlandishly bad film that offers nothing worthy of a strong reaction. The only thing in this whole film that I can honestly call distinctive is that it contains an extended dragon fart joke (yes, really). In essence it is the same kind of movie we see come out of Hollywood every year, one that was designed by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator with no allowance for cleverness, creativity or contemplation. Kids will probably laugh at the silly cartoon animals and parents may even be grateful for the temporary distraction, but they deserve better than this kind of rubbish. ‘Lazy’ is not a word I like using when criticising films because it devalues the efforts of those working people employed by the studios who put their time and labour into creating their rubbish, but in a film that feels this hastily strung together, that seemingly doesn’t care about offering its audience anything new or exciting and that neglects to employ the talent at its disposal to any greater use, I cannot think of a more appropriate word.