Video game movies are bad. This is a truth that has been seemingly universally acknowledged for decades. Then, last year, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu hit theatres, daring to ask the question, “What if video game movies don’t have to be bad?” Indeed, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, while being merely good and not great, is arguably the first movie inspired by a specific video game or video game franchise to truly challenge the so-called ‘video game movie curse’, presenting a legitimately engaging comedy-adventure that both kids and adults can enjoy. This seemingly presents a revised strategy with delivering video game movies in the modern era, namely by focusing on making them digestible, inoffensive affairs for general audiences, albeit also projects that pull out all the stops when it comes to production polish.
A similar school of thought appears to be behind Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog movie, a pitch originally acquired from Sony Pictures. Where Sony fumbled the ball however, Paramount managed to get it to the end zone, successfully releasing Sonic the Hedgehog as a Valentine’s Day tentpole this year, where it was very well-liked by both kids and adults, a la Pokemon: Detective Pikachu last May. Sonic the Hedgehog has also proven to be a box office champion to boot, being well on its way to being the highest-grossing movie release of this February. This in turn further damages the weakening video game movie curse, with Sonic the Hedgehog presenting a solid product that doesn’t require any degree of established Sonic fandom to enjoy, as well as one that balances family-friendly adventure with some surprisingly sharp comedy and heart.
Mind you, I still wouldn’t expect the world out of Sonic the Hedgehog, because it’s still a fairly boilerplate blockbuster, one that seems actively afraid of making the plight of video game movies even worse. On top of that, while the character of Sonic and his arch-nemesis, Dr. Robotnik (apparently, Robotnik is going back to his 1990’s identity in this movie, rather than his modern ‘Eggman’ identity from more recent Sonic video games), are faithful to their portrayals in the source games, the rest of this movie’s world has literally nothing to do with the video game franchise that inspired it, instead plunking Sonic into a mundane, real-world setting. This is a risky move, especially since taking beloved characters outside of their natural environment is often a big no-no for adaptations, particularly long-struggling video game adaptations. Even so, Sonic the Hedgehog manages to pull off the gamble, making the smart decision to shed the increasingly tiresome, 90’s-era attitude driving most of its source games, and instead going all in on a fluffy cinematic adventure that’s too cute not to adore.
Sonic the Hedgehog naturally stars the titular character, an alien hedgehog from a far away world in this movie’s continuity, voiced by Parks & Recreation alum, Ben Schwartz. Sonic has had to live most of his life away from the prying eyes of humans, after being forced to flee from mysterious enemies (this is something that’s presumably being saved for a possible sequel), where he pretends to interact with the people that live in a nearby town on Earth, many years later. This movie can’t seem to commit to whether Sonic is a child, a teenager or an adult during the story’s proper, present-day events, which may be an intentional joke, but regardless, Schwartz makes the character plenty likable, despite making Sonic noticeably less edgy than he is in his source games.
The other main protagonist in this movie is James Marsden’s local sheriff, Tom Wachowski, with Marsden amazingly making this the second time he’s starred in a movie whereupon he spends most of it interacting with an imaginary CGI creature, following 2011’s significantly worse Hop. I guess that means that Marsden has been down this road before though, and to his credit, he does manage to make what could be a tedious human personality into a legitimately likable accidental hero in his own right. Despite not acting alongside each other, the double act between Marsden and Schwartz feels seamless, which is a big testament to the surprisingly snappy character writing throughout this movie’s script. Neither Schwartz nor Marsden are playing particularly deep characters, mind you, but they utilize their simple performance foundations well, and the editing, writing and direction throughout this movie have benefited them in turn.
Of course, as entertaining as Marsden and Schwartz are in Sonic the Hedgehog, the real performance draw arrives courtesy of Jim Carrey, finally returning to a more classic schtick as Sonic’s persistent, arrogant and endlessly armed arch-nemesis, Dr. Robotnik. Seeing Carrey go back to his comedic roots for the first time in seemingly ages is a very welcome breath of fresh air here, particularly when he does so with far more consistency and appeal than he did during his previous attempt to revive his former comedy style, namely in 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To. This is despite Carrey’s Robotnik not being all that faithful to his video game inspiration in how he’s initially presented, having Carrey’s wiry frame, a fully earthbound background and appearance, and not usually featuring his overblown red moustache that’s been iconic throughout most of the Sonic the Hedgehog video games and related media.
Despite that though, Carrey’s Robotnik is another element of Sonic the Hedgehog that defies its initial lack of faithfulness to the source games, instead creating a new, bold take on Robotnik that works flawlessly within this movie’s live-action universe. Carrey’s Robotnik is so insufferably conceited, so manically loud, and so aggressively lacking in people skills, that it somehow transcends the logical annoyance that should result from such a caricature of a person, and ends up becoming brilliantly funny to the audience. Perhaps it’s because the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog is so lovably innocent and earnest that Carrey’s Robotnik shines as a hyper-cynical foil to such a degree that you can’t help but laugh at the mismatched clash of personalities. I suppose in that respect then, this more wholesome take on Sonic couldn’t have possibly asked for a better arch-nemesis, one that’s so stuck up his own rear end that his increasing obsession will keep inevitably leading to his very expensive downfall, Wile E. Coyote style, and yet, Robotnik won’t stop trying. Why should he, when he’s this much fun?
Admittedly though, the rest of this movie’s characters barely register, which could just as easily be a testament to how much Schwartz, Marsden and especially Carrey just steal this movie and run with it. Tom has a sweet, doting wife, for example, but she might as well not exist, since she spends most of the movie away from Tom anyway. Likewise, Tom’s sister-in-law hates him for some reason that’s never truly explained, though this at least lends itself to more simple, but effective gag fodder. Finally, there’s a whole ton of military and government-type folks, including Robotnik’s under-appreciated and oft-abused assistant, Stone, an inexplicably faithful character that’s seemingly begging to become a robotic monstrosity in a sequel, but they’re all simply utilized to keep highlighting just how lovably absurd Robotnik is. I guess there’s something to be said about sticking to what works with Sonic the Hedgehog’s personalities though, and while none of them are terribly complicated, they’re all fun in their own right, and succeed at what they set out to do.
Sonic the Hedgehog certainly isn’t striving to be high art, especially within a subgenre of filmmaking that has almost exclusively been defined by failure and disappointment so far. It’s perhaps prudent then that this movie’s storyline be simple to a fault, not just to accommodate child viewers, but also anyone who is completely unfamiliar with the Sonic video game franchise, and its related spin-off media across cartoons and comic books. Even by those standards however, Sonic the Hedgehog’s storyline is pretty simplistic and banal, being completely held up on its likable characters, and its surprisingly enjoyable humour and action.
Like I said as well, this issue is compounded further by Sonic being removed from his natural environment in this live-action feature film, which is probably a good idea when it comes to making the movie more accessible to children, the uninitiated and even newer fans of the character, but it does come at the expense of Sonic the Hedgehog feeling like a hodgepodge of storylines that you’ve already seen in other movies. It’s a road trip movie that feels like most other road trip movies, a fugitive thriller that feels like most other fugitive thrillers, and a fish-out-of-water storyline that feels like any other fish-out-of-water storyline. None of it is particularly demanding, but at least this means that none of it is difficult to grasp for any moviegoer either.
The premise of this movie involves Sonic being displaced on Earth from his own world, and having to eke out a living as a secret presence around the human town of Green Hills, a nod to the first level in 1991’s debuting Sonic the Hedgehog video game for Sega Genesis, or Sega Mega Drive if you don’t live in the Americas. After Sonic accidentally makes his presence known to the world however, he has to team up with kindly Green Hills sheriff, Tom Wachowski, and find his transportation rings that he accidentally lost in San Francisco (it makes sense in context), while dodging the watchful eye and devious devices of Dr. Robotnik, a brilliant, but highly eccentric and narcissistic scientist that’s been hired by the government to determine what Sonic is, and how he can be stopped.
Like I said, this is clearly a melange of story ideas that have been done to death in numerous other movies, even if the way they’re combined here does manage to provide serviceable fun and excitement for fans and non-fans of Sonic the Hedgehog alike. Not only that, but it’s also true that no one with reasonable expectations is going to go into a Sonic the Hedgehog movie expecting a grand, sweeping epic. Even compared to Pokemon: Detective Pikachu before it however, Sonic the Hedgehog plays it pretty safe, something that sometimes works against it more than for it. Then again, I suppose that pushing the narrative boat out is what this movie’s fairly substantial sequel potential is for.
One of the biggest surprises throughout Sonic the Hedgehog is how sharp and fun it is to experience, even if you’re a grown adult. Even more shocking is that this movie is directed by a complete unknown, with Jeff Fowler making his feature directing debut here, after helming animated short, Gopher Broke in 2004, and doing virtually nothing since, beyond assisting with some of the effects work in 2009’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. The newcomer director is yet another production element constantly threatening to derail Sonic the Hedgehog’s final product, and yet, Fowler’s direction is quite sharp throughout the movie.
There’s a great sense of speed during Sonic’s action scenes, and yet, the action still feels clean, and relatively easy to follow. Not only that, but the comedy-driven scenes also work well, having a weird deadpan charm that ends up complementing the otherwise frenetic pace of Sonic’s character. It’s almost as if Sonic is too fast for this world, and amazingly, that’s a joke that doesn’t manage to get old, in a video game movie of all places! Clearly, Fowler had a very passionate, in-depth vision when it came to realizing Sonic the Hedgehog on the big screen, and to his credit, he achieved it with virtually no concrete backing on his resume, especially recently. Somehow, Fowler strikes a perfect balance between cartoon-ish humour and surprisingly mundane humanity, something that makes Sonic the Hedgehog a whole lot more likable and fun than it probably should be.
Sonic the Hedgehog manages to bring in Tom Holkenborg, Junkie XL himself, to compose its soundtrack, and the result is a fittingly zippy and energetic score that feels very true to the title character. There aren’t many instances of familiar Sonic the Hedgehog video game themes being incorporated into the soundtrack, outside of an epilogue that does call back to the very first Sonic the Hedgehog game from 1991, but this movie’s soundtrack nonetheless stands well on its own, once again by focusing on being a good movie soundtrack, rather than recycling what the source games did with their own music. Some Sonic fans may be disappointed that more familiar sound cues aren’t frequently present in the audio here, but this movie still carries its own sense of appeal in its audio design, capturing the comical urgency of Sonic’s live-action adventure all the same.
The rest of the audio engineering in Sonic the Hedgehog ends up packing a deceptive amount of punch to boot, despite this movie not having the backing of a premium IMAX cut behind it. Sonic himself is portrayed as remarkably powerful, exhibiting theatre-shaking bursts of energy and agility, despite, once again, not often incorporating familiar sound effects from the source games. Likewise, the eerie, inhuman buzzing and whirring of Robotnik’s devices is similarly well-captured, creating a series of action scenes that feel a lot more engrossing than you would initially imagine they would. Some very young children may be a little overwhelmed by some of the speedier moments, but the high energy behind even the comedic set pieces is appreciated, leading to a movie that always feels like it’s trying its hardest, but also avoids the feeling of trying too hard.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s visual design, specifically surrounding the title character, became a little bit infamous during this movie’s first batch of marketing and trailers, whereupon we saw a more disturbing and uncomfortable live-action take on Sonic’s character design. This design mishap was thankfully quickly corrected before release though, even if it did result in a slight delay out of this movie’s originally planned November 2019 release window. Now, Sonic looks far, far better in the movie’s final product. Sonic’s CGI rendition occupies the bulk of this movie’s visual effects as well, with Sonic himself now being true to his design from the games, but still finding a way to function and be believable in a live-action setting. Familiar Sonic flourishes like the spin dash are also present and accounted for, even if the lightning amid Sonic’s speed is newly invented for the movie, and feels like it’s more at home with a character like DC’s The Flash (whom Sonic is apparently a big fan of in this movie, go figure), rather than a wholesome cartoon hedgehog.
Several of Robotnik’s machines are also CGI, but they also manage to fit in surprisingly well in the live-action setting. Occasionally though, a few genuine sets and rigs are put together for Jim Carrey to tangibly utilize, which is appreciated, and prevents this movie from devolving into a mindless mess of CGI. That being said, this is still a movie that’s inspired by a cartoon-ish video game, one originating from Japan no less, so it was never going to look perfectly realistic in cinematic execution. Still, a worthy balance is achieved between CGI, practical sets and just a bit of character make-up, which leads to Sonic the Hedgehog frequently looking polished, energetic and cool in its final design, having come a long way from that inadvertent nightmare fuel that Paramount originally tried to push when it first planned to release this movie last year.
Sonic the Hedgehog slickly picks up the baton from last year’s comparably good Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, outrunning common sense, expectations and what we formerly understood of video game-to-film adaptations, in order to deliver a movie that’s surprisingly entertaining for viewers of all ages. Whether or not you have any established love or knowledge of the Sonic franchise is also irrelevant, since even totally uninitiated viewers can jump right into this movie, and enjoy it on its own merits. Fortunately though, longtime Sonic fans aren’t left out in the cold either, thanks to some amusing Easter eggs, and choice nods to some of the franchise’s history in some of the dialogue and direction. This leads to a movie that, despite branching significantly from the storytelling style of the source games, will nonetheless remain highly appealing to people who have loved the Sonic franchise for decades, just as much as newcomers, to the point of even surpassing many of the franchise’s recent video game efforts in quality!
That being said, Sonic the Hedgehog is very proudly a disposable cinematic distraction, one without much depth to the plotting or the characters. Even so, perhaps this is the right strategy for Hollywood’s video game adaptations to be employing at this point, gradually chipping away at the negative perception behind video game-adapted movies, specifically by delivering undemanding, but competent and entertaining big screen productions. This approach is a big part of what led to Pokemon: Detective Pikachu turning out surprisingly well last year, and this in turn also leads to Sonic the Hedgehog turning out similarly well, despite Sonic the Hedgehog branching much further from the universe conventions of its own source games.
Sure, as a movie divorced from its video game inspiration, Sonic the Hedgehog is nothing that special, if you insist on being a pessimist for some reason. Among so many ill-fated video game adaptations however, Sonic the Hedgehog truly is special, simply because it’s well-made and fun to watch, and for now, that’s really enough for such a struggling branch of Hollywood film adaptations. I do hope that we can eventually revisit this new live-action Sonic universe with a sequel in the coming years too, hopefully at a point where said sequel would have more breathing room to start embracing the truly weird, wacky and ambitious plot elements from the video games that inspired this budding Paramount franchise.
- Schwartz and Marsden pulling off an effective double act
- Carrey's sublime Robotnik performance
- Surprisingly exciting, fast-paced action and humour
- Shallow, unoriginal storyline
- Most of the supporting characters are virtually meaningless