Releasing a Sonic the Hedgehog movie in the mid-1990s when Sega’s super-fast mascot was at the peak of his popularity made sense. But the technology wasn’t there to do anything other than an expensive Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style animation/live-action hybrid, and considering how badly other video game adaptations like Super Mario Bros. (1993) and Street Fighter (1994) had fared at the box office, it was a financial risk Sega perhaps wisely avoided.
Amazingly, it’s now taken Sonic 30 years to reach cinemas, years after the character’s pop-culture impact on young players. And we’ve since had decades of terrible movies based on popular video games, meaning expectations were understandably low for Sonic the Hedgehog. And that was before fans were incensed by the first trailer revealing a more “realistic” redesign of Sonic, which was hastily reenvisioned due to the whirlwind of negativity and set the movie’s release back months.
The good news is that Sonic the Hedgehog is better than the many cynics expected, considering the inherent difficulties in translating a platform game about a blue hedgehog collectings golden rings into a narrative that can support 99-minutes. Here, Sonic is a supersonic baby alien who flees a group of tribal echidnas by hopping through a portal created by a magic ring, thus finding himself on our world. A decade later and Sonic’s become an urban legend in the small Montana town of Green Hills, keeping himself isolated in a cave where he uses his incredible speed to amuse and distract himself. However, after causing a blackout by triggering an electromagnetic pulse, Sonic finds himself hunted by eccentric genius Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey), forcing him to befriend local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and go on a road trip to San Francisco to retrieve more magic rings he can use to escape.
It’s a crazy but simple premise with enough internal logic to work. When one considers the leftfield madness of the Super Mario Bros. debacle (with its parallel universe of humanoid dinosaurs), I don’t think fans will be too upset over what screenwriting pals Pat Casey and Josh Miller have come up with. It’s another take on the alien creature in a small town who makes human friends while being pursued by evil-doers, familiar from everything from E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1983) to Starman (1984), only now with tonal influence from The Smurfs (2011). It’s been made specifically for kids, who likely have parents that owned a Sega console in the ’90s and might themselves enjoy a blast of nostalgia.
Indeed, memories of yesteryear play a role in Sonic the Hedgehog for other reasons. The film would be harmless entertainment as written, but Paramount Pictures cleverly secured the talents of Jim Carrey to play Robotnik the moustache-twirling villain. And Carrey’s another ’90s icon, who hasn’t tapped into his patented schtick or rubber-faced lunacy since the early-2000s — if one overlooks Dumb and Dumber To (2014).
Carrey’s involvement could be seen as an embarrassing fall from grace, considering he was once a headlining A-lister commanding $20M per movie, but I’m pleased he agreed to take on this silly role. It plays to his comedic strengths and allows him a couple of scenes that evoke memories of his glory days, particularly in an all-too-brief dance sequence inside an armoured truck with a giant video screen. Carrey may be pushing 60 but he’s barely lost a step when it comes to gesticulating his limbs, managing to eke out additional laughs from his OTT style of delivery. And considering how the film ends, it seems Carrey’s in this for the long haul, surprisingly…
James Marsden is ostensibly the “lead” of the film and is likewise a bit of a throwback figure — to the early-2000s thanks to playing Cyclops in the X-Men trilogy. But his matinee idol good looks are balanced by astute comic timing, as Enchanted (2007) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) demonstrated. Much like Carrey, Marsden helps elevate the material with a likeable performance that, of course, mostly involved him talking and reacting to nothing before the VFX team got to work. (And then got back to work again when fans criticised their efforts…)
Ben Schwartz (Parks & Recreation) is the voice of Sonic himself, doing a commendable job that makes the character feel fun and endearing. I was expecting to find Sonic irritating and shallow, but Schwartz gives him warmth and evokes the joy of an eight-year-old in the big wide world making friends for the first time. One particularly memorable sequence finds when Sonic and Tom hanging out at a roadside bar, where Sonic gets to complete some bucket list activities until a brawl breaks out and he must use his blistering speed in a wat familiar to those who loved Quicksilver’s slo-mo action sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
Sonic the Hedgehog will melt from your memory an hour after it ends, but it may get repeated play from kids who appreciate the bright colours, fizzy VFX, and simple ‘good vs. evil’ plotting buoyed by decent performances and Jim Carrey having fun for the first time in years. It also teases a sequel I feel good about seeing, as there’s nothing here to hate with any real intensity and it’ll be fun to see Carrey again. It’s a lighthearted movie based on a beloved video game that hits most of its marks, will definitely entertain its target audience of under-10s, and will likely surprise the jaded adults expecting a trainwreck. One of the best video game adaptations ever made? It’s a low bar, but Sonic the Hedgehog is certainly in the top third of that inglorious league table.
Cast & Crew
director: Jeff Fowler.
writers: Pat Casey & Josh Miller (based on the video game characters created by Sega).
starring: James Marsden, Ben Schwartz, Tika Sumpter, Jim Carrey, Natasha Rothwell, Adam Pally, Neal McDonough, Tom Butler & Frank C. Turner.