We seem to have entered a new age of video game movie, one in which the sub-genre isn’t doomed to suck. Sure, we may still be waiting for a truly great video game movie, but considering the horribly misguided 1993 Super Mario Bros. film – despite its countless faults – remained one of the more enjoyable video game to movie adaptations out there for a good, long while speaks volumes to the low standards of the genre. But now, we’re seeing some real effort going into these video game movies, efforts that are beginning to pay off both for fans of the games and as movies themselves. 2019 saw the release of the charming Detective Pikachu, and now 2020 has seen the release of the surprisingly entertaining theatrical debut of Sonic the Hedgehog.
It’s impossible to talk about this Sonic the Hedgehog feature without bringing up the fact that the film is released in 2020 because it was delayed from its initially planned late-2019 release due to Sonic having to be redesigned and reanimated, after the film’s initial trailer lead to widespread criticism and potential horror with the film’s original depiction of Sega’s iconic blue hedgehog.
You often hear people say how special effects “can’t save a film,” and while that’s mostly true, Sonic the Hedgehog is proof that, sometimes, the special effects can save a movie in their own way. Had this film kept its original design for Sonic, the movie simply wouldn’t have worked. Its namesake mascot would have been an unnerving, cringe-worthy ghoul. The character design would have distracted from any benefits the film may have otherwise had.
While one could make the argument that fans and social media have too much of a say-so in creative works these days, this proved to be an instance where listening to the fans was unquestionably the right call. Because the film opted to make Sonic look more cartoony and closer to his video game self, this Sonic the Hedgehog film dodged a bullet. As such, we can appreciate the (surprising amount of) merits the film does have. Sonic the Hedgehog still has its share of faults, mind you, but it’s a consistently entertaining feature that should also leave fans of the series happy.
In this adaptation of the video game series, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is from another world (which looks suspiciously like the Green Hill Zone from the first game in the series, though it isn’t directly referred to as such). Sonic was born with the ability to run at the speed of sound, and a tribe of echidnas were always after his power (foreshadowing a character likely to appear in a sequel). Sonic had a protector in the form of an owl named Longclaw, but she could only protect Sonic for so long. Sonic, heeding Longclaw’s advice, uses some magic rings to travel to another world in hopes of escaping danger and living a free life (the rings here in the film work like the portals to bonus stages from the games, as opposed to the collectible items).
The world Sonic arrives in is (surprise) Earth. More specifically, he lands in the state of Montana, in a small town called Green Hills (there it is!). There, Sonic lives in secret for the next ten years, getting to know the town inside and out while the townspeople remain none the wiser (save for a conspiracist dubbed “Crazy Carl,” who tries to spread word of a ‘blue devil’ in the town). Sonic’s favorite denizens of Green Hills are Sheriff Thomas Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter), whom Sonic likes to secretly watch movies with during their movie nights (if we weren’t talking about a blue cartoon hedgehog here, that would be pretty creepy).
After years of being isolated from any social contact, Sonic falls into something of a depression. He manages to find ways to cope like playing a baseball game against himself (using his super speed to play the different positions in the game). One day, Sonic takes things a little too far, and his power ends up causing a blackout throughout the Pacific Northwest. The US government can’t figure out the source of the outage, so they enlist a super genius roboticist by the name of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to uncover the anomaly.
Sonic may be fast, but Robotnik proves too intelligent and crafty, and his machines are constantly on Sonic’s tail. Sonic takes refuge in Wachowski’s house, only to be discovered by Green Hills’ sheriff. Unfortunately for Sonic, he startles Wachowski, who ends up tranquilizing the blue hedgehog, who then drops a ring that opens a portal to San Francisco (it’s a long story), and then accidentally drops the remainder of his rings into said portal before it closes.
With Robotnik’s machines tracking him down, and now absent of his rings to travel to a safer world, Sonic and Wachowski – and later Maddie – team up to try and stay one step ahead of Robotnik’s forces, get to San Francisco, and reclaim Sonic’s rings. All the while, Robotnik plans on capturing Sonic not so much for the government’s research so much as he wishes to use Sonic’s power to fuel his own machines.
The plot is appropriately simple, which was probably the best way to go. After all, it’s when the Sonic games began focusing more on storytelling that the series started to go off the rails. There are admittedly some flimsy elements to the plot, the most prominent of which being the film’s constant attempts to explain why Sonic needs help getting to San Francisco when he can run faster than any vehicle (“he doesn’t know the way,” “Thomas owes him for tranquilizing him” etc.).
The humor itself is admittedly where the older crowd might grow a bit weary. The film can at times be genuinely funny – particularly when Dr. Robotnik is on-screen, with Jim Carrey going “full 90s Jim Carrey” for the role – but other bits of humor in the film might fall flat on the adult crowd. Even some of the antics of Sonic himself might get a little tiresome. I get that he has endless energy, so Sonic’s constant commentary on every situation is perfectly in character, but I could live without Sonic doing the floss dance or a Sonic fart joke.
Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely a film aimed at younger audiences. That’s fine by me. Children deserve to have movies as much as anyone (if not more so), and again, Sonic was always at its best when it embraced its nature as a children’s series (notice the downward spiral the quality of games suffered once Shadow the Hedgehog showed up with his guns and swearing). Still, it would be nice if more of the humor of the film were a little less juvenile.
Otherwise, Sonic the Hedgehog is a consistently good time. Yes, a fully animated Sonic movie would be the ideal direction for the franchise, but considering how so many of these live-action adaptations of animated characters have turned out, it’s close to miraculous that Sonic the Hedgehog is as enjoyable as it is. James Marsden plays a good and charming straight man in contrast to Sonic’s antics, and it can’t be overstated how much of a highlight Jim Carrey’s take on Dr. Robotnik is (some fans may lament that for most of the film he simply looks like Jim Carrey with a mustache, but as the film goes on, he adopts more and more of his classic video game look).
Another aspect of the movie that I liked is that Sonic and Robotnik are the only characters from the games to be featured in the film. Again, the video game series was at its best when it kept things simple, so for the film to show restraint in its character inclusions (and exclusions) is admirable. After all, the very first Sonic game only featured Sonic and Robotnik as its primary cast, so it feels appropriate that they’re the only ones to make the jump to Sonic’s big screen debut. There are hints at Tails and Knuckles appearing in potential sequels (which seems likely now that the film is a success), but that feels like the right way to introduce them. Kind of funny how the Sonic the Hedgehog video games seem hellbent on adding more and more bloat with each new entry, while it’s the video game movie that gets it back on the right track.
Even with only two characters from the games, this Sonic the Hedgehog film still manages to squeeze in many a reference to the long-running series (and Sega in general). Whereas the 1993 Mario movie seemed to be Mario in name only, this very much feels like a love letter to the video game series on which it’s based. Perhaps the only downside in this area is that the only music from the games are a couple of remixes of the Green Hill Zone theme. It’s great to hear such a classic video game tune in a movie, but a few more tracks from the games really would have been icing on the cake (imagine Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik descending in his hovercraft to the boss music from Sonic 1. That would have been delicious).
Maybe one day we’ll get a fully animated Sonic feature even while this series continues (after all, Spider-Man is currently in the MCU, his animated Spider-Verse version, and has spinoff characters like Venom getting their own separate movies. We live in a time when a movie franchise can be different series all at once). But again, as far as bringing an animated world into a live-action movie goes, Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely one of the best ones, and very likely the best video game movie made to date (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).
Between Sonic’s redesign, the profuse references to the video games, and Jim Carrey’s manic brilliance as Dr. Robotnik, Sonic the Hedgehog continues what Detective Pikachu started by crafting an enjoyable film that – unlike so many of history’s video game movies – doesn’t feel the slightest bit ashamed about its source material.
It may not be a great work of cinema, but I’m happy this Sonic the Hedgehog movie exists. Surely that counts for something?