“I wouldn’t call it spying. We were all hanging out, and no-one knew I was there.”
When I was a kid, my brother had an accident on the playground and ended up with a concussion. He was taken to hospital, where they decided to keep him overnight for observation. When we went to visit him, we found him in the playroom using something I had never seen before – a Sega Mega Drive. He was playing a game with a bright blue hedgehog, and a fox with two tails, navigating a series of platforms, and traps, and robots in a strange set of the purple and orange caves – the Mystic Cave Zone in Sonic The Hedgehog 2. The blue blur became Sega’s platforming mascot in 1991, and after 30 years of consistent representation in video games and TV shows, Sonic was ready to make his live action cinematic debut in Sonic The Hedgehog. So, how did he do?
On a faraway planet, a young supersonic hedgehog named Sonic (Ben Schwartz) is sent to Earth to hide from a tribe of echidnas, who want to try and steal his power of speed. After spending 10 years in isolation, hiding on the outskirts of the town Green Hills; an accidental overuse of his speed abilities results in a huge electromagnetic pulse, knocking out power to half the eastern seaboard. This attracts the attention of the US military, who send eccentric scientific genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carey) to ascertain the cause. Knowing he’s in danger, Sonic attempts to use the magic rings that brought him to Earth to escape to a new planet, but a chance encounter with local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) results in Sonic losing his rings and enlisting Wachowski’s help in retrieving them.
Video game movies traditionally get a bad rap, and often justifiably so. Adapting something which comes with a lot of baggage is difficult at the best of times; but adapting a medium which is so interactive into a spectator experience has always come with issues (never mind the considerable amount of lore which many videogame properties carry with them). The early Sonic games were two dimensional action platformers, with a focus on getting through each level as quickly as possible as part of the core gameplay loop, and even as stories became bigger and the animation became more advanced; most modern Sonic games have maintained that as a central feature (when playing as Sonic himself, anyway). For Sonic The Hedgehog the film, the focus of a lot of the action is very much on Sonic’s speed; and while the representation of that speed does fall into fairly stereotypical territory at times (do we need a sequence of every character with super speed getting up to shenanigans in slow motion, Hollywood?), that focus keeps the action of the film anchored around that central theme. As with the expected slow-motion sequences, there’s also a lot of perhaps unnecessary animation around Sonic’s speed itself; with the art direction taking from the likes of DC’s The Flash series in adding extra colour and electricity effects to Sonic when he’s moving at top speed, but beyond the establishing EMP story beat, is not really necessary for the visualisation throughout the rest of the film – though given how the character received a complete visual redesign after the initial trailer, I won’t speed too long griping about effects, especially as the CGI is pretty impressive for Sonic The Hedgehog, particularly with Sonic himself, and with Dr. Robotnik’s army of drones. This should come as no surprise, given that director Jeff Fowler’s background lies in CGI animation; and he demonstrates he can handle live-action too here, in his full-length cinematic directorial debut.
Now, this review has hit on a few negative points right off the bat, which may make it appear like this is going to be the tone of the piece; but not so, because I have to say that I really enjoy this film, and there’s a lot that they got right with it. Firstly, and most importantly, this is a family film which establishing a potential franchise, and the creative time have approached this in exactly the right way. I’ve already mentioned the problem with adapting videogames with dense lore, and a lot of issues that films face revolve around both relying too heavily on said lore, or ignoring it altogether. The good thing about the Sonic The Hedgehog games, and wider multimedia franchise, is that while the series does have 30 years of lore; a lot of the games are stand-alone adventures that make it a lot more adaptable if you keep the central themes. The primary strength of this film is that writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller do just that – the core tenets of what makes Sonic an engaging character over the years have been maintained, and there are central story concepts that rely on established Sonic history in a refreshed way; and there are other elements of Sonic’s history that are included as smaller references or easter eggs (perhaps setting up future sequels, such as the inclusion of the echidna tribe in the opening sequence). The result is a story which has enough nods to the videogame (and TV show) history to satisfy longer-term fans, but a new presentation which will avoid overwhelming newer fans; be they younger children with a limited introduction to Sonic as a character, or to parents who weren’t fans of Sonic growing up but are watching this piece with their Sonic-fan kids. That mindset also comes to the script as a whole; with a good range of gags for kids and some more subtle, sharper jokes for the adults as well – it’s cheesy, but in a good way. Really, the only time the script lets itself down is when it allows itself to have some product placement awkwardly shoe-horned in; I refuse to believe anyone likes Olive Garden enough to actually say their tagline out loud to their partner in private, but I’m not American, so maybe I’m wrong there.
Sonic himself is wonderfully brought to life by Ben Schwartz, whose eternally-youthful voice and pinpoint comedic timing make him an excellent choice in voicing the adolescent supersonic hero. When the time came for Sonic to adopt a personality beyond Gotta Go Fast in his television debut, the writers of the mid-90’s devised that a brash, sarcastic and quip-filled hero was the way to go; and Schwartz does a great job of bringing that attitude to Casey and Miller’s dialogue for the blue blur. Schwartz does a good job of keeping Sonic funny, rather than annoying; even at the moments when the character is supposed to be frustrating the character around him; which is a tough line to walk, and one he walks effectively. The majority of his patter comes from back-and-forth with James Marsden, who must also receive acknowledgement for presenting a surprisingly empathetic and natural performance against a central lead who was not there for any filming. While this is certainly nothing new in modern cinema; the amount of time we spend with Sonic and Tom as a duo is considerable, and at no point does Marsden’s performance give any inclination that Schwartz was not with him on set, dressed as a 4 foot tall anthropomorphic blue hedgehog.
It would be remiss to talk about performances and not discuss Dr. Robotnik, as Jim Carey is doing the most with this role. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Carey performance that allows him to let loose in all of his most cartoonish glory, and it certainly seems that he was having a lot of fun bringing Robotnik to life. What could easily have been written off as stunt casting to get people in the theatre really pays dividends in terms of performance, and even while allowing his goofiest over-acting to flow forth; Carey still brings a lot of malice and threat to Robotnik, and works effectively in bringing the reimagined long-time Sonic foe to life. His limited interactions with Schwartz and Marsden are highly enjoyable, but he’s at his best with his assistant Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub); who puts in an excellent straight-man performance to give Carey something to bounce off when they’re together on screen. Tika Sumpter and Natasha Rothwell also put in good work as Tom’s partner Maddie and Maddie’s sister Rachel respectively, despite not having a whole lot to do; but Sumpter’s empathetic support for Marsden and Rothwell’s comic relief for when Sonic and Robotnik are not front and centre are well-placed and used effectively within the narrative (though both actors deserve more to do if they come back for any sequels).
All in all, Sonic The Hedgehog is a fun, goofy, family-friendly movie that brings plenty of action and comedy to a beloved character, and marks a pretty successful move to the big screen for the blue blur. There’s something in this movie for you if you’ve played every Sonic game, or if you haven’t played any; and it stands up as a great option for a movie night, be it with the family or not.