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.