Ben Schwartz as Sonic the Hedgehog (Voice)
Directed by Jeff Fowler
Written by Patrick Casey & Josh Miller
In another world, Sonic the Hedgehog lives on an island paradise filled with lush wildlife and architecturally pristine landscapes formed to accompany his speedy skills. While free to roam and zip through this vivid landscape young Sonic is warned to keep a low profile, as there are forces out in the world who want to steal his power. Rebellious to the core, Sonic just can’t be still and lay low. Soon enough, he’s being hunted by a local tribe aiming to capture the speed king. His world is no longer safe and he needs to escape. With a satchel full of rings and a map bestowed upon him by his guardian, Sonic can travel to new worlds by thinking of a place he wants to go and throwing a ring into the air, opening a portal to a new land. His escape takes him to Green Hills, Montana, on our Earth.
Living years under the noses of the kind people of Green Hills, Sonic thinks of himself as part of the community. He spends most of his time spying on the town sheriff, Tom Wachowski, and envisions himself as part of Tom’s family. One day, after getting upset when he realizes he has no actual friends, Sonic runs so fast that a massive charge of energy shoots from his body, causing a city-wide power outage. The disruption was so tremendous, the government thinks it could have been an act of terrorism. They send out their top scientific mind to research the matter; the unhinged Dr. Robotnik. With Robotnik on his trail, Sonic knows he needs to move on to another world but loses his rings when Sheriff Tom stumbles upon Sonic attempting to escape. Agreeing to help Sonic retrieve his rings, the pair have to outrun Robotnik, who now wants to harness the power of the little blue speedster.
Let’s just move straight past the unforgettable character design controversy that first saw Sonic’s film adaptation shown to audiences in a trailer that presented him as an acid trip fever dream demon of deformed madness. Instead, let’s think about the history of video game movies. Before Detective Pikachu (which in itself is in no way a brilliant film), the pinnacle of video game movie adaptations was 1995s Mortal Kombat–and that is not saying much. Just because it was the best attempt, it’s still a miserable movie. Sonic the Hedgehog is very similar in ways; it’s not a great film, but it’s also not a tragic dumpster fire. It feels strange to say a film that just ekes its way past being garbage is a good thing, but compared to what I and most people expect from Sonic the Hedgehog, you have to consider this a bit of a success. Sure, some of that feeling comes from knowing we were spared having to look at that funky creature they first planned on delivering to us, but the movie as a whole was able to do some of the heavy lifting on its own.
There were moments of actual laughter, mainly served up by Jim Carrey, of course. This is some old school, “fly by the seat of his pants,” Carrey here. As a video game character, Robotnik was just a crux to have someone for Sonic to fight against. This means Carrey had no boundaries to box in any part of this performance. No specific facial or body ticks, no trendy catchphrases, no personality quirks he had to adhere to. He was simply free to be Jim Carrey and it’s fun to see him at it again. I’m not even angry the character’s roly-poly figure was left behind. The script even found a clever way to also call him, “Eggman,” referring to the character’s name in the Japanese version of the original games. There are definitely some wild zingers from Robotnik that are not so kid appropriate that will go way over their heads too, but they led to the most laughter for a viewer like me; even if the biggest gag came from a very odd discussion about breastfeeding.
There’s also some props that need to be given to Ben Schwartz as the voice of Sonic. Ben does a lot of voice overwork, and while I’ve never heard every single vocal performance he’s ever done, I always feel like I can pick his voice out of a crowd. Even with the knowledge that he was the man behind the blue blur, his image and his style vanished into the cuddly mascot from frame one. Children won’t care where Sonic’s voice comes from, nor should they. Most adults don’t care either, I reckon. Still, as someone who is familiar with Ben and his work, it strikes a certain note that he was able to lose himself into an iconic character that was a massive part of my own childhood. As already mentioned, this is not a complete failure of a film, but it’s these little joys that shine in a movie that is just doing the bare minimum to get by. That’s the big thing that brings us to…
What Didn’t Work:
To put it lightly, Sonic the Hedgehog is the most bland, middle of the road story you can tell. Like a forgery copied from a resume book, Sonic the Hedgehog is a cookie-cutter tale that has no real purpose other than to make money off a licensed IP. If you told me the script was spit out of a room full of monkey’s handcuffed to typewriters while watching round the clock marathons of Hallmark Channel original movies, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Amongst the trite plot are also throngs of baffling scenarios highlighted most memorably by a gas station pit stop by Sonic and Tom while they’re on the run. Waiting in the car for Tom to come back from making a phone call, Sonic is enthralled by the raucous mayhem outside the biker bar not more than 50 feet from the station. Except, the duo pull up to the gas station with the entire atmosphere being calm and quiet–you can hear the crickets even. Yet, two seconds later, Sonic is jarred by a large crowd surrounding a blazing bonfire while bearded ruffians tear up donuts in the dirt with their motorcycles, and ear bleeding music spews from inside and outside the bar. How did they not hear or notice this madness before?
Much to my dismay, just like Birds of Prey, Sonic the Hedgehog also suffers from school of, “So you’re asking yourself, how did I end up here,” storytelling. Forget unoriginal, it’s almost insulting at this point that this is all Hollywood can come up with. Not only is the plot of Sonic the Hedgehog boring and uninspired, it blatantly passes over an opportunity to use the original video game story to actually deliver a timely and pertinent message. The first Sonic the Hedgehog game was about Sonic saving his friends from the evil Dr. Robotnik. The mad scientist trapped all the animals of the forest and trapped them inside his machines, using them as unwilling pilots as a way to fight against Sonic while he tries to keep Robotnik from obtaining the Chaos Emeralds (which would turn him into an even more powerful madman). While you were still spending time collecting rings and fighting Eggman, you were liberating your animal chums. We’re in a renaissance of awareness toward the earth and nature. What a perfect opportunity to bring to life classic video game characters with a story that is both timely and important. Instead, we get– Good guy gets chased by bad guy (who’s a U.S. Government agent) for his powers, and ends up friends with the guy who was reluctant to help him at first. Hooray for the power of new friends…yawn.
To add insult to injury, the outlining premise of the story feels rushed and confusing. When the movie starts, Sonic is a little kid (what did baby Sonic look like in the original CGI form?) and the only other character we see him interact with is an owl that is his…mother? It’s not really explained in any way, but it is obvious this owl raised this hedgehog. Did Sonic’s parents die? Was he just formed out of magic? There was no owl in the games that I can remember; not sure if this is a character that exists somewhere in Sonic mythology once I became an adult, but what in the world is going on here? Sonic’s rings also open up portals to other worlds, but are they other dimensions? Other planets in other solar systems? Tom likes to refer to Sonic as an alien and it catches on, but Sonic doesn’t mind. Is he an alien? The movie seems comfortable without actually addressing any of this, hoping the audience just accepts the flimsy explanations they are given (or not given) to push the story along.
The Bottom Line:
Neither a failure or success, Sonic the Hedgehog does everything it can to not tank the opportunity of future video game films from coming to market. Attached with a neat Sega title card ala the MCU, it’s obvious Sega has plans to bring more properties to the big screen (I’m free and readily available Sega to discuss a Shining Force film. In the wake of Game of Thrones, it is the perfect property to bring to life), and Sonic the Hedgehog won’t derail those plans just yet. From not so thinly veiled jabs at Nintendo to rubber man Jim Carrey back in action, Sonic the Hedgehog may just have slid its hand into the closing elevator doors of video game franchise films.
Sonic the Hedgehog hits theaters this Friday!