Released: February 2020
Director: Jeff Fowler
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $81 to 95 million
Stars: James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Tika Sumpter, and Jim Carrey
Small town cop Tom Wachowski’s (Marsden) life is turned upside down when Sonic (Schwartz), a superfast hedgehog with an insatiable curiosity and the means the travel between worlds, finds himself the target of the megalomaniacal Doctor Robotnik (Carry).
Back in the nineties, in the middle of the escalating Console War between Nintendo and SEGA, the videogame industry was changed forever when Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima dreamed up the idea of the superfast hedgehog that would become their mascot and most profitable franchise for years to come. Sonic has seen his fair share of adaptations; he’s been a hot air balloon, on t-shirts, featured in comic books, and has, most prominently, had more than a handful of ventures into animation. Every time Sonic is adapted from one form of media to another (and, it seems, almost every time a new Sonic videogame is released) something is altered, however subtly, about his appearance, backstory, or mannerisms, making for one of the most iconic and, yet, convoluted videogame mascots ever made.
Aside from the gorgeous original video animation (OVA), Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie (Ikegami, 1996), Sonic has had to settle for cameos in movies until now. After a disastrous first trailer and initial design that saw Sonic look like some weird mutant human/monster hybrid thing, Jeff Fowler and Paramount delayed Sonic the Hedgehog to redesign the titular hedgehog and, now, he’s ready for his first big screen, live-action debut.
Raised in secret on a far away world, Sonic is forced to flee his home through the use of dimensional Golden Rings; arriving in Green Hills, Montana, where he spends the next ten years living in isolation out of the fear that his super speed will draw attention to him and force him to flee once again.
Sonic spends most of his time observing Tom Wachowski and his wife, Maddie (Sumpter), and longing to be a part of society and make a real friend. When his speed powers unintentionally cause a massive blackout in Green Hills, the US military bring in Doctor Robotnik to investigate the disturbance.
Spooked by the incident, Sonic reluctantly decides to leave his home but accidentally drops his bag of Golden Rings through a dimensional portal, where they land in San Francisco. Unable to find his way there, Sonic and Tom team up on a road trip to retrieve the Rings, all the while being pursued by Robotnik and his deadly robotic drones. Going into Sonic the Hedgehog, I wasn’t expecting anything more complicated than a by-the-numbers family-friendly kid’s movie; I was unimpressed that Paramount opted for a live-action/CGI hybrid film rather than a full-on CGI movie in the style of a Disney/Pixar production (or the amazing CGI cutscenes of modern Sonic videogames) and, upon seeing Sonic’s ruinous first design, I was ready to write the entire movie off, which was rather distressing for me given that I have been a life-long Sonic fan. Instead, Sonic the Hedgehog is a really fun (and funny) little romp; Sonic’s characterisation has been tweaked slightly and, rather than the “hedgehog with attitude” or the cocky, confidant superhero of the videogames, he is a lonely, curious, hyperactive little creature who longs to belong in a world and is struggling to control his great speed and with his desire to use his powers for a greater purpose.
His interactions with Tom are charming and whimsical; Marsden is no stranger to films or roles such as this and, yet, he is the perfect actor to portray an everyman character who longs for a greater challenge beyond his mundane, everyday life. To my great surprise and delight, the two quickly form an odd couple friendship that grows throughout the film and there isn’t one of those clichéd moments where they argue and fall out and have to rebuild their friendship.
Surprising no one, the real star of the show here is Doctor Robotnik; Jim Carrey is back at his scenery-chewing, maniacal best as he perfectly encapsulates the Doctor’s madcap, zany megalomania and slowly degenerates further and further into both madness and a more recognisable version of his videogame counterpart. Do I think he would have been just as good in a fat suit and acting alongside a cast of CGI characters? Sure, but that doesn’t stop his performance being a delight. Sonic the Hedgehog is part comedy, part road trip, part quasi-sci-fi/fantasy action; Sonic himself provides much of the jokes and action, but Carrey is no slouch in either department either thanks to his wacky personality and his incredibly adaptable machines. As with all Sonic adaptations, Sonic the Hedgehog weaves in numerous references to the source material; there’s a loving recreation of the character’s traditional home, South Island, nods to iconic Zone names, and even a few musical cues from the videogames. Arguably, the film could have gone further with these and weaved iconic boss themes into a motif for Robotnik but it definitely feels as though the movie was concentrating on establishing a new version of Sonic and bringing in additional videogame elements in a future sequel.
As it stands, though, Sonic the Hedgehog was a surprisingly good time; all the characters were fun and enjoyable and the film avoided a lot of the clichés that movies of this type often fall back on. It may not be the best videogame adaptation but it’s more than a worthy successor to Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (Letterman, 2019) despite featuring only one fully-realised CGI character largely through its whimsical charm and is surprising amount of restraint as it focuses on telling its own unique Sonic story rather than overloading the film with elements from the videogames.
As with most Sonic adaptations, Sonic the Hedgehog feels the need to include, and place special emphasis on, the Golden Rings that form the life energy of the videogames. Rather than being the source of Sonic’s power, or a power boost for him, here they act as dimensional gateways, which isn’t a million miles away from the function the Big Rings perform in Sonic videogames.
Going into the film, I was concerned that they were pushing the Rings as Sonic’s “super power” rather than his super speed but, luckily, that wasn’t actually the case; instead, Sonic’s speed seems to have some mystery behind it. His childhood guardian, Longclaw (Donna Jay Fulks) seems to be hiding, and protecting, Sonic not just because of the power of the Rings (which seem to be her possession rather than his) but also because of his speed, which (alongside the way his super speed is presented as a quasi-power-up at dramatic times) makes me think we might see a connection between Sonic’s speed and the Chaos Emeralds in a future sequel.
Speaking of future sequels, and Longclaw, perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that, in the opening moments, Sonic and Longclaw are attacked by a group of masked echidnas after they spot Sonic using his super speed. This was a fun and unexpected inclusion and raises a lot of questions for future sequels, especially with Robotnik being marooned on a mushroom-filled planet and vowing revenge. Unfortunately, I had the big mid-credits reveal spoiled thanks to Twitter but, suffice it to say, Sonic’s long-time friend Miles “Tails” Prower (Colleen Villard) shows up looking for Sonic, potentially setting up that Sonic, Tails, Tom, and Maddie may travel back to Sonic’s world in the sequel to take on Robotnik and, perhaps, Knuckles the Echidna.
Sonic the Hedgehog was way better than it had any right to be; the overhaul of Sonic’s design alone makes the film worth the price of admission but, alongside that and some clever references to the videogames, the film is a fun, charming little family action/comedy that brings a new dimension to Sonic’s character and lore. Sonic and Jim Carrey are the clear stars of the show but there’s plenty here to enjoy; I feel that, if we do get a sequel, we will see the filmmakers take things a little further and delve a little deeper into Sonic’s more familiar mythology now that they’ve established their version of the character and I am honestly looking forward to seeing this version of Sonic (and, especially, Robotnik) return in the future.