Sonic The Hedgehog
The spiky blue Erinaceinae is certainly an iconic character, and it surprises me that it has taken this long to see him on the big screen. Despite having no great love for the games, I have vague recollections of being, for a brief period, intensely into Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, a 1993 animation, when I would have been five. The episode “Tails’ New Home”, wherein the villainous Dr Robotnik manufactures some fake cyborg parents to trick Sonic’s sidekick into thinking he is no longer an orphan, is something I have a surprisingly good memory of even today (perhaps because it was a brief shift from the series’ otherwise slapstick tone). But after that, my Sonic love faded away, with my knowledge of him in later years amounting to awareness of a succession of humdrum 3D platformers and an impressively perverted fan fiction community.
But then along came Sonic The Hedgehog, that rapidly went from “video game movie cash-in” to “defining moment in the history of modern cinema”. The negative reaction to the awful animation when the first trailer was released back in May 2019 prompted a halt in production and marketing while a huge portion of the film was redone: this has provoked some debate on the how much power audiences should have on as-yet unreleased media. I would find myself firmly on the side of “Fuck it, send it to print” on that one, but the situation around Sonic The Hedgehog undoubtedly made it a film I actually wanted to see more. So, was it a polished masterpiece, or a car crash that not even months of redesign could save?
Sonic (Ben Schwartz) is an extraterrestrial blue hedgehog, with the power to run at incredibly fast speeds. Hiding on Earth from those who would try to use his power for evil, the lonely Sonic longs for friendship, spending his days secretly observing unfulfilled Montana cop Tom (James Marsden). When a manifestation of his powers draws the attention of the US government, Sonic and Tom are thrown together in a race to avoid the machinations of duplicitous mad scientist Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey).
It’s strange to call Sonic The Hedgehog a disappointment, because it’s completely bog-standard, and is no way deserving of harsh criticism on most fronts (though saying that, give me a minute). But in trying to avoid the perils of becoming “good bad”, it instead wanders into the much worse realms of mediocrity. Sonic The Hedgehog probably had the potential to be a quasi animated The Room, and instead it is now destined to be one of another dime-a-dozen video game adaptations.
I mean, it is fine, a film that takes surprisingly few risks at any point and is happy to chain itself to the formula you would expect any film of this type to follow, right down to the “three days earlier” opening (that Rick and Morty have well and truly ruined for me). Everything can be seen coming from a mile away, telegraphed for an audience that the production team seem to have no respect and a lot of fear of.
I am brazen enough to suggest that if you had paid me whatever you paid director Jeff Fowler and writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller (best known for animated shorts and low-brow horror satires), and told me to write a 90 minute Sonic The Hedgehog movie, then this is probably what I would have come out with: a likable goofball main character, an over-the-top villain, a smattering of easy set-pieces, some false-sentimentality to keep people as engaged as they can be, a top-of-the-third act argument between the main characters that will be all too easily resolved and everything else that the Snyder beatsheet offers. That’s all that Sonic The Hedgehog is at the end of the day: easily swallowed and digested mush, with no sense of danger or stakes that I should really care about.
The film tries to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the title character, framing him as both a zippy one-liner machine and as an E.T-esque alien just looking for love and companionship. Ben Schwartz, an extremely talented comedian in his own right, does just fine as Sonic, but can’t juggle both aspects of the character to the required degree. He’s surprisingly decent when Sonic is spending scenes just talking to himself, but he needs someone to bounce off of. Enter James Marsden’s Tom, and with all due respect to the man and his not insubstantial accomplishments – it’s strange to remember that he was at the forefront of the modern superhero wave with the first X-Men trilogy, and he’s one of the best parts of Westworld – he very obviously is not comfortable acting in green screen or opposite a cartoon character (tellingly, he’s at his best in scenes shared with Carrey, or Tika Sumpter as his occasionally seen wife).
Fowler attempts to make something akin to Turner and Hooch in his relationship with Sonic, but it jumps between childish antics and deadly serious diatribes on loneliness for any of it to be effective. About the only time I found my interest piqued by their relationship was a motel room scene that I swear to God seemed like a nod to the predilections of the fan fiction community. In the end we’re not here for Tom and his ambitions to being a cop in San Francisco or the troubles with his wife.
As an actual Sonic move, I suppose it’s fine. There are plenty of references to the source material here, from the Montana town that Sonic calls home being dubbed “Green Hills” to a not-unexpected mid-credits cameo from a mutated fox, even while the film mostly manages to remain its own beast. Essentially a road-trip movie for large parts, Sonic The Hedgehog trundles along at a brisk pace for 90 minutes, occasionally stopping dead to see its biggest name dance around like a monkey.
It is truly sad to see Jim Carrey as he is here. A quarter of a century or more on from Ace Ventura and The Mask, the man is still doing this character, with the manic energy, zany put-downs and undeniable sense that he is more cartoon than human. The kids will probably love this, but I cannot help but feel a certain amount of heartache at the sight of Carrey still doing the same physical comedy and insulting yucks, a pitiful attempt to match the nostalgic charm of Sonic with the nostalgic charm of a Carrey from yesteryear (one can’t help but think that the creators are imagining a mid-nineties Sonic film where Carrey would have been in his prime).
Perhaps that’s a recognition of how good of an actor Carrey is when he has the material, and that this kind of entertainment was something I outgrew sometime around the early 2000’s. Here, he is a strangely off-putting presence, where cackling megalomania does occasionally bring laughter – the pay-off to “Agent Stone” in the film’s final scenes is actually great – but which mostly just makes you feel rather uncomfortable.
In very brief, very fleeting moments, Sonic The Hedgehog actually does dally with deeper themes of migration, social inclusion and acceptance. It isn’t “Immigrants, we get the job done” by any means, but when Robotnik issues a villainous monologue about how stupid he finds the acceptance of “the other” by people to be, and how he tries to encourage fear of his blue nemesis for no reason other than he is different, it isn’t hard to see what is being said. A film that ran with that idea more might get respect from me, but Fowler and his screenwriters are happy to bludgeon the audience in a few scenes, leaving the opportunity behind them.
Visually, it’s actually quite good. Those hoping that last years trailer heralded an anthropomorphic hedgehog that would make the film an unintended horror film residing deep in the uncanny valley will be disappointed. Sonic looks just dandy, and the CGI animation work makes him enough of an alien figure that you won’t be repulsed, and enough of a realistic image that we aren’t in We Framed Rodger Rabbit? territory. It’s broadly on a level with Pokemon Detective Pikachu of last year, with just enough touches to make Sonic seem like an actual animal, but not so many that he becomes something other than he is. The idea that he might pass as a weird looking human – employed in a biker bar segment that grinds the film to a halt for around ten minutes in the second act – is a bit much though.
Sonic The Hedgehog manages to create a few engaging action sequences, most notably a mid-point battle with an unmanned Robotnik tank that keeps getting wrecked, only for a smaller, deadlier robot to come jumping out of said wreckage. Sonic races around and goes into his scrunched up, spherical mode and all of the other good stuff. But strangely the film is better on a visual set-piece away from action: a sequence where a lonely Sonic plays a game of baseball against himself, before flying into an EMP-generating rage at his own isolation, is probably the film’s best effort at combining physical comedy with genuinely emotional moments, but it is a rare interlude. The finale falls back into the action genre well-worn urban-centric destruction fests, and not even some creative time-stopping sequences – where Fowler undoubtedly owes a lot to the Quicksilver sequences of the X-Men franchise in terms of inspiration – can save the film from a sense of monotony.
It’s predictable to say, but the only shot that Sonic The Hedgehog has of lodging itself firmly in the film’s worlds landscape is if it is enough of a financial success to generate sequels and, whisper it, a wider franchise. Undoubtedly, there is some studio executive somewhere who considers Sonic the Iron Man of an Avengers-esque Smash Brothers team-up movie, the progenitor that will set the ball rolling towards films for the likes of Mario, Donkey Kong, Captain Falcon, Fox McCloud and Samus.
But man, that is hard to envision from this point. Sonic The Hedgehog simply isn’t daring enough. Even taking the source material at its most basic level, it’s a dimension spanning epic of crazy characters, goofy action and ridiculous action. This film version feels like a basic effort to replicate this, doing the necessary and only that, a move where the production team was running scared of negative fan reaction, and thus unwilling to take the required risks. It’s at times funny, at even less times moving, and rarely very effective. It’s more often humdrum, in its cast at large, in its script and in the pathetic sight of its chief villain trying to relieving the glory years of the early 90’s. If you want a quasi-animated film that nails every aspect of itself while honouring revered source material, go give Paddington 2 another look.
The wait for the truly great video game adaptation goes on. Paul W. S Anderson is going to be giving it a go again next, with wife Milla Jovovich cast in the lead of Monster Hunter. I’m sure that’ll be the one. As for Sonic, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t go slow, it settles into a safe, boring speed limit pace. For that, it cannot be recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).