Back in April 2019, the first Sonic the Hedgehog trailer was released. It’s fair to say that it was poorly received; it looked visually flat, had Gangsta’s Paradise as aural accompaniment (not the song I’d choose to suggest anything fast moving!), featured Jim Carrey being far too Jim Carrey and – the biggest, most obvious sin of them all – Sonic looked absolutely atrocious.
The character design was completely wrong; with human-looking teeth and nails, as well as very odd, humanoid proportions.
He was way too anthropomorphised and lost any of the appeal of his original character design. Though Sonic has, admittedly, undergone plenty of changes over the years in the video games and animated shows, they’d mostly kept to a reasonably standardised, exaggeratedly cartoony look. Let’s not talk about Sonic Boom though – which is probably the closest the cartoons got to the 2019 movie design.
Reaction to Sonic’s design – let alone the rest of the trailer – was overwhelmingly, deafeningly negative. A weirdly refreshing thing happened; in May 2019, the studio actually listened to the feedback, giving the film’s director – Jeff Fowler – the budget and time to get Sonic’s look right. Delaying the movie by several months in the process, the new look was revealed in November 2019 and was met with a near universally positive response. It wasn’t just the character design that had benefitted from the extra time; the trailer itself seemed like more fun – faster, bolder and with more of a connection to the video game than we’d seen previously (the scenery glimpsed on Sonic’s home world being a very close match to the first world of the very first Sonic game, for example).
So, Sonic came out – finally – in February 2020. Did it live up to the hype of the second trailer? Let’s find out…
The movie opens with a flashback to Sonic’s early life on an alien world, where he’s being taken care of by a kindly and very realistic looking owl named Longclaw. Not being the biggest Sonic fan in the world, I wasn’t sure if Longclaw was a character from the established lore, but she wasn’t one I remembered (her realistic look, in contrast to Sonic’s more cartoony aesthetic, seems like a hangover from the pre-redesign character appearances). She understands that Sonic’s powerful speed is something that more nefarious individuals may want to harness for their own ends, so resolves to keep his existence hidden. Unfortunately, he’s discovered by what looks like a tribe of echidnas, who attack Longclaw; she teleports Sonic to another world using a portal created by the golden rings from the video game – giving Sonic a supply of them and telling him to remain in hiding.
The new world he finds himself in is – of course – Earth. Green Hills (a reference to the Green Hill Zone of the games) in Montana, to be precise. He lives there and grows up in secret, observing the inhabitants of the town – including local cop, ‘Donut Lord’ Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and being spotted only occasionally by town crank, Crazy Carl (with a great nod included to the ‘Sanic’ meme). Becoming frustrated at how isolated he is after a decade of living without any friends or family, Sonic accidentally unleashes a wave of electromagnetic energy that takes out all power in the town. The power surge attracts the attention of the military and they send nutty, loose cannon genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to investigate.
Losing his supply of rings through a portal to San Francisco – during a surprise encounter with Marsden’s cop – it’s not long before Sonic and Wachowski are making their way to California to get Sonic back to safety, with Robotnik in hot pursuit.
It all moves at lightning speed, appropriately. The opening sequence on Sonic’s world is over in a flash and – barring an extended sequence of Dr Robotnik dancing in his lab – it doesn’t feel like the pace lets up for the majority of the running time. I feared that Sonic would be annoying, but he’s actually cute and charming – Ben Schwartz does well with the voice and facial motion capture work here, and the design of the character has really helped here (the original character model was incredibly creepy and unlikeable – Paramount absolutely made the right call in allowing the redesign).
One fear I had throughout the pre-release publicity was Carrey’s Robotnik – everything I saw just felt like Jim Carrey dialled up to 11, a schtick that was overused way back in the 90s. Unfortunately, I do still think that he’s the film’s weak link; he’s way over the top and – especially in the aforementioned dancing scene – just feels like overly familiar stuff we’ve seen before (his Batman Forever turn as The Riddler came to mind in particular) and felt like someone trying way too hard to be funny…and failing, in my opinion. It’s an awkwardly cringey try-hard performance for much of his screen time. He does eventually get the classic Robotnik look, thankfully – but it’s an all too brief, mid-credits sequence that this comes into play. This does, however, bode well for the sequels – which will hopefully not be relying on Carrey’s perceived star power too much.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast turn out to be pretty likeable. Even James Marsden – no stranger to appearing alongside a completely CGI character, thanks to the Easter Bunny-themed Hop in which he was the main human character – is an unexpectedly decent companion to our little blue hero.
Though much of the film isn’t particularly exciting from a visual standpoint, it comes alive in the action scenes at least, which are well shot, easy to follow and really fun. There’s a few sequences that are very reminiscent of the X-Men Quicksilver high speed/slow motion scenes, but – though derivative – they’re fun, effective and very amusing.
I also need to point out that the Sega logo that appears at the beginning of the film is absolutely glorious – materialising from footage of classic Sega games, it’s wonderful to see even brief glimpses of so much of the company’s vibrant history on the big screen. The same goes for the pixel art animation recap of the movie’s events that kick off the end credits, which are beautifully done. There’s a ton of references to Sonic and Sega littered throughout the film too, some subtle and some not so much; it’s clear that those viewers more familiar with the video games are going to get the most out of seeing it.
So it’s not the most original or groundbreaking film in the world, but Sonic is inoffensive, entertaining and generally well crafted fun. Video game movies have come a long way since the dark days of the 90s (the first Mortal Kombat aside, though that’s an arguable opinion – it was crap, but at least it was knowingly cheesy, well made crap). Though it looked like the curse of video game movies had struck again when it was first revealed, I’m more than happy to have been proven wrong with the end product.
Sonic has no pretensions of being high art and little of it will linger in your mind for long after seeing it, but then why should it? Ultimately, Sonic’s first movie sets out to entertain and I had fun watching it – I’m not sure we could ask for more. In setting up a potential franchise, it introduces the characters and concepts in a way that works for new audiences as well as those more familiar with the games.
And, dare I say it, following the final mid-credits sequence in which a fan favourite character from Sonic 2 makes a crowdpleasing appearance, I’m even looking forward to seeing more. Definitely a pleasant surprise.
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