Talking Movies [Sonic Month]: Sonic the Hedgehog (1999)


Sonic the Hedgehog was first introduced to gamers worldwide on 23 June 1991 and, since then, has become not only SEGA’s most enduring and popular character but also a beloved videogame icon. This year, the Blue Blur turns thirty and what better way to celebrate than by dedicating every Friday of this month to SEGA’s supersonic mascot.


Released: 1 November 1999
Originally Released: 26 January 1996 and 22 March 1996
Director: Kazuho Ikegami
Distributor: ADV Films
Budget: Unknown
Stars: Martin Burke, Lainie Frasier, Bill Wise, Edwin Neal, and Sascha Biesi

The Plot:
Doctor Ivo Robotnik (Neal) takes Princess Sara (Biesi) hostage and forces Sonic the Hedgehog (Burke) and Miles “Tails” Prower (Frasier) to journey to Robotropolis to keep Planet Freedom from being destroyed and, in the process, have them battle his ultimate creation: Hyper Metal Sonic (Gary Lipkowitz).

The Background:
After Sonic achieved worldwide success and became the hottest pop culture icon of the nineties following the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1992), Sonic was practically everywhere as SEGA capitalised on their mascot’s success with comic books, story books, toys, spin-off videogames, and, of course, animated ventures. Outside of Japan, DiC Entertainment produced two widely different Sonic cartoons that ran simultaneously and would come to inform the long-running Archie Comics series.

Japan got much different Sonic cartoons to the rest of the world, one very much a traditional anime.

Just as Japan and the rest of the world saw different Sonic promotional materials and lore, so too did each country have incredibly different animated ventures for SEGA’s mascot as, in 1996, Perriot studio produced a two part original video animation (OVA), “Welcome to Eggmanland” and “Sonic vs. Metal Sonic!”, that featured a traditional anime aesthetic that was closely modelled on the anime sequences from Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sonic Team, 1993) and much closer to the source material thanks to the involvement of Sonic Team (specifically Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima). As audiences outside of Japan were enduring easily the worst Sonic cartoon ever created, Sonic Underground (1999), and to coincide (somewhat) with the North American release of the Dreamcast, ADV Films combined the two-part OVA into one feature length feature, subjected it to a questionable dubbing process, and released it straight to video. Still, the feature length animation holds largely favourable reviews among Sonic fans for its closer adherence to the source material despite being just as removed from it as Sonic’s American cartoons.

The Review:
Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is this absolutely mental anime adaptation of the videogames that has a slick, detailed aesthetic that not only evokes the artwork of the videogames but also aligns almost perfectly with the anime sequences from Sonic CD. Because of this, though this world is as strange and unique as the various iterations of Mobius, the OVA feels like an authentic tie-in to the source material rather than a distilled, heavily altered commercial product like the cartoons.

Though short-tempered and lazy, Sonic revels in action and adventure.

What really makes the Sonic OVA stand out from other animated adaptations, apart from the anime aesthetic, is its portrayal of Sonic; rather than a wise-cracking show off, OVA-Sonic is a snarky, short-tempered teenager and actually showcases the “attitude” that Sonic was advertised as having. He just wants to sunbathe in peace and quiet and yells at Tails for interrupting his relaxation and has absolutely no interest in helping Robotnik even though the safety of the entire planet is, apparently at stake. Despite his lackadaisical attitude, though, Sonic is quick to race into action when he sees Tails is in real danger and begrudgingly agrees to solve Robotnik’s problem despite never shaking the belief that something fishy is going on. Sonic is not just cocky but also extremely arrogant, surprisingly lazy, quick to anger, and uncouth, something his current incarnations often seem to forget or ignore. While still heroic, Sonic prefers to wait until the very last second, or needs considerable persuasion, to act; Sonic desires challenge and, without it, is mainly lethargic. This is best depicted in his intense and escalating battle with Metal Sonic wherein Sonic’s stupor gives way to a passionate desire to defend his pride and identity.

Tails is at his most capable here, berating Sonic’s inaction and directly influencing the plot.

Tails, also, is far more capable and competent than his other animated counterparts; a genius with machines and computers, it’s heavily implied that he retrofitted all the junk and discarded technology to build his laboratory and aircraft hanger and he’s easily able to reprogram Robotnik’s navigational device to alter Hyper Metal Sonic’s programming and repair the Tornado after it crashes. Crucially, though clearly an enthusiastic and naïve little kid, Tails is Sonic’s conscience and the voice of reason; when Sonic refuses to help, Tails berates him and helps coerce him into action and, while he does need a bit of rescuing, he’s also quite capable of doing far more than just whining or being a mere hostage or a liability.

Sara is a pain in the ass but at least she has more personality than the President.

Tails’s usually annoying characteristics are, instead, supplanted into Sara; a grating, annoying character, Sara is selfish and aggravating, throwing tantrums over the littlest things and revelling in her ability to manipulate the hearts and minds of men with her allure. Interestingly, though, the annoying aspects of her character give her a little more personality than the average damsel in distress since she doesn’t just sit there like a lemon or cringe in fear; she shouts, screams, lashes out, and whines the entire time instead which, yes, means you end up questioning why anyone would want to rescue her annoying ass but an irritating personality is a personality nonetheless, at least, which is more than can be said about her father, the President (Neal), who is a largely ineffectual and useless character.

Knuckles is a far less gullible or bumbling character than he’s now characterised as.

Unlike the majority of Sonic’s American cartoons, the OVA immediately gets extra points from me for actually including my favourite Sonic character: Knuckles the Echidna (Wise). Of course, of all the characters, Knuckles is perhaps the most fundamentally changed by the adaptation process; rather than an echidna, he’s said to be a mole (one, somehow, capable of flying) who is more interested in treasure and bounty hunting than guarding Angel Island and the Master Emerald. In fact, neither of these two elements are ever mentioned, characterising Knuckles as this wandering nomad who is, nevertheless, “Sonic’s best friend”; Knuckles, far from the gullible and foolish character he has become in recent years, is a capable, confident, and knowledgeable source of exposition and gets some fun comedic moments like when he chastises Tails for landing on Sara’s boobs or when his beloved and bad-ass cowboy hat catches fire!

Though a buffon at times, Robotnik is still a charasmatic, deceptive, and competent villain.

For those only familiar with Sonic’s American cartoons, perhaps the most striking character in the OVA is Dr. Robotnik; rather than some bumbling fool or a semi-cybernetic, tyrannical dictator, Robotnik is far closer to his videogame counterpart and, when I think of the Robotnik from Sonic’s 2D videogames, this is the one I think of. A charismatic, deceptive, and a ruthless individual, Robotnik is easily able to intimidate the President by kidnapping his daughter, manipulate Sonic and Tails into doing his bidding, and ultimately capture Sonic’s “life data” to complete Hyper Metal Sonic. There’s a lot of backstory hinted at with this world, primarily through Robotnik, who explains how Planet Freedom works and hints towards previous encounters with Sonic and Tails, and Robotnik actually has a lot of depth to his personality as he seems to genuinely be besotted with Sara while also wishing to destroy Sonic and take over the Land of the Sky.

Metal Robotnik is an obvious ruse but gives Sonic and Tails a serious run for their money.

Robotnik, of course, isn’t the only antagonist in the OVA; at first, we’re led to believe that the primary antagonist is the mysterious “Metal Robotnik”, a massive demonic anime mech that is, clearly, being piloted or at least controlled by Robotnik. The deception, however, completely fools everyone despite the fact that Metal Robotnik sounds exactly like Robotnik! The mech suit gives Robotnik a vast array of combat options that briefly give him the upper hand but the destruction of Metal Robotnik isn’t even a set back for Robotnik; it’s all simply part of his master plan, which is surprisingly competent and threatening.

Sonic insists on battling Metal Sonic alone, seeing the robot as a degrading imposter.

Hyper Metal Sonic, obviously, ends up becoming the main antagonist but it doesn’t actually properly appear until after our heroes get past Metal Robotnik, enter Robotropolis, and shut down the Robot Generator; it’s glimpsed in the opening, pre-title sequence, however, and looms over the narrative like an ominous cloud so that, once it does appear, it’s in suitably dramatic and threatening fashion. Hyper Metal Sonic is a cold, calculating, silent antagonist and Sonic sees its mere existence as both an insult and a threat to his position, categorically refusing to have his friends help him and choosing to battle his robotic counterpart alone in increasingly violent confrontations.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Though there is a general, prevailing idea that Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is much closer to the source material than its other animated counterparts, that isn’t exactly true; the world we are presented with in the film is just as different from that seen in the games as Mobius is in the cartoons and comics, perhaps even more so since this is a strange world that resembles a shattered, post-apocalyptic version of our world more than the wacky, fantasy worlds seen in the videogames. However, the spirit of the videogames is evoked far closer thanks to the OVA’s anime aesthetic and locations closely resembling those seen in the games (Never Lake, for example, appears to be briefly seen onscreen at one point and Sonic races through traps and obstacles very similar to those from the games, including the first and most accurate onscreen portrayal of springs, spikes, and Badniks).

The world is both familiar and yet unique, borrowing from and then influencing Sonic‘s videogames.

One thing I love about this OVA is not just how well it captures the spirit of the source material but also came to influence later videogames and Sonic canon; it’s fitting that this was released outside of Japan around the time of the Dreamcast since there are many visual and aesthetic similarities between the OVA and Sonic Adventure (Sonic Team, 1998): Tails’s workshop, the airstrip that rises out of the ground, the visual of the “relics” of the Land of Darkness (clearly the remnants of New York City) sinking into the ocean are all clearly evoked in Sonic Adventure. Honestly, it’s a shame that more episodes of the OVA weren’t produced and that it hasn’t had a greater impact on larger Sonic canon; ideally, I’d love to see a 2D Sonic videogame utilise an artistic style or anime sequences such as the ones on display here for the cutscenes, if nothing else.

Animation is slick and fluid and the level of detail on offer is astounding at times.

Visually resembling Sonic CD’s impressive anime sequences, and loosely adapting its plot, unlike its American counterparts, the OVA featured a fairly simplistic story, but one given greater depth by its diagetic world. While some exposition exists regarding Planet Freedom and its two opposing “dimensions”, it is clearly not Earth, Mobius, or the Japanese videogame world either, despite some aesthetic resemblances to each. Instead, Planet Freedom is a post-apocalyptic alternate Earth where some calamity has caused the planet’s surface to break away and reduced the lower surface to ruins. As a result, the OVA’s visuals and scenery are amazingly detailed and even somewhat resemble the Zones of the source material. This, coupled with the OVA’s musical composition, evokes Sonic’s spirit in a way that its counterparts failed to do; by appropriating numerous anime tropes and conventions, the OVA’s characters act exactly as you expect and engage in frequent, intense, fast-paced action.

Amusingly, some risqué moments slipped past the OVA’s censors…

Of course, the OVA isn’t perfect; ask most people for their thoughts on it and the first thing they’ll mention is the pretty atrocious voice acting. Tails has a strange, nasally quality; Sonic’s voice is wildly inconsistent, croaking one minute and being strained the next, and Old Man Owl (Charles C. Campbell) is almost unintelligible. Knuckles, however, sounds pretty good and I love Dr. Robotnik’s boisterous, elaborate slightly German accent. Overall, I don’t really mind the voice work; it’s not like the ones in the American cartoons were always great and it actually adds to the OVA’s cheesy, goofy charm. Indeed, the OVA’s flaws come from the poor quality of some of the voice acting rather than the quality of the animation yet, interestingly, though it has the high-quality whitewash of respected Japanese anime to bolster its critical reception, Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie remains almost as separate from its source material as any of the American animations, though ironically is able to better convey the essence of said source material better than any Sonic animation produced throughout the nineties. Furthermore, the OVA is made more entertaining by the fact that a few questionable moments made it past the censors: Sonic gives Metal Robotnik the finger, Sara is seen breastfeeding in a brief imaginary sequence and kicks the crap out of Metal Sonic when she thinks its looking up her dress, and Sonic lands on his crotch on Robotnik’s craft, which is all very wacky and amusing.

Metal ultimately comes to reflect not just Sonic’s speed and skill but his heroic heart as well.

Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie excels in the quality of its animation; characters move with blinding super speed like in Dragonball Z (1989 to 1996) but are also slick and smoothly animated. Nowhere is the animation and art style represented better than in the depiction of Sonic’s battle against Hyper Metal Sonic and the design of Metal Sonic (and, also, Metal Robotnik). Their battles are a test of their skill, speed, and endurance as Sonic is somewhat on the backfoot given that Metal doesn’t tire or feel pain but Metal, far from a simple unemotional machine, begins to grow frustrated with Sonic’s persistence and will and evolves to mirror Sonic’s personality and body language as much as his speed. Thanks to Tails’s influence, Metal eventually chooses to sacrifice itself to save Sara and the President, refusing to be save from destruction since “There. Is. Only. One. Sonic”.

The Summary:
Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is, still, perhaps the greatest Sonic animation ever created even though it still takes numerous, strange liberties with the source material, reflecting neither the Japanese or American versions of Sonic’s story or the story as told in the games themselves. Instead, the OVA is its own thing entirely, implying a continuity and a larger backstory that we, sadly, never get to explore as we only got to see these two episodes edited into one feature-length animation. Nostalgia and the general obscurity and rarity of the OVA obviously all helps to add to its appeal but Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is still well worth your time, especially if you’re a Sonic fan or a fan of anime in general since there’s plenty on offer here for both. Between the slick animation, catchy soundtrack, and action-packed narrative, Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie presents perhaps the most appealing and cohesive bridge between Sonic’s many competing narratives and I’d love to see the concept and aesthetic revisited in more detail at some point. However, since that’s extremely unlikely given how wildly different the Sonic franchise is these days, at least we still have this hidden gem to fall back on.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Have you ever seen Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie? If so, what did you think to it? Were you able to look past the dodgy voice acting or was it simply too much to handle, despite the OVA’s impressive animation? Did you like the unique world of the OVA or do you feel it was too separate from the videogames and generally accepted narrative of the time? Would you like to see a return to this style of characterisation and animation for Sonic or would you prefer something a little different; if so, what? How are you planning on celebrating Sonic’s thirtieth anniversary this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the OVA, and Sonic in general, so feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to pop back every Friday of this month for more Sonic content!

8 thoughts on “Talking Movies [Sonic Month]: Sonic the Hedgehog (1999)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s