Sonic surprised critics upon release. Was this the result of low expectations or actual quality?
All of the chips seemed stacked against poor Sonic the Hedgehog. Video game movies are notoriously bad, though that trend seems to be easing somewhat lately. Paramount had an uphill climb as Sonic, as a franchise, has struggled for relevance, never really recapturing his 16-bit, 1990’s glory days. They started out in the hole by releasing a horrendous trailer sporting some of the worst CG and character design in recent memory.
Paramount scrapped the trailer’s visuals and went back to the board, prompting quite a bit of internet schadenfreude about throwing good money after bad. In February, just weeks before the pandemic would shutter theaters, Sonic finally released. And lo and behold, it was a success!
Catching up on all of the films that fell into the pandemic black hole, we decided to see if Sonic the Hedgehog really earned his stripes, or if the blue blur just managed to clear the low bar of expectations.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz), endowed with lightning fast speed, tends to draw attention wherever he goes. When he draws the ire of mysterious hunters on his home planet, his guardian gifts him with a bag of golden rings that allows him to hop from planet to planet. Evading capture, he hops to the pacific Northwest of planet Earth to lay low.
Years pass, and Sonic grows tired of being alone. He tries to befriend the local sheriff, Tom (James Marsden) due to his kindness to animals. Unfortunately, by revealing himself he also draws the attention of an evil government scientist, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) who wants to harvest Sonic’s speedy power for his own evil schemes.
What Went Wrong.
- Playing it Safe. You could be forgiven for thinking this film’s working title was “Who Framed Sonic Hedgehog?” Paramount certainly didn’t go big when it came to story: a cute alien/animal meets an exasperated human while on the run from dastardly government forces. While other recent films such as Detective Pikachu embroidered that generic script, Sonic plays it mostly no frills.
- Best Friends? Being a fish out of water/buddy movie, you need to have some chemistry between the leads. Sonic largely lacks that. Sonic and Tom don’t play off each other effectively; while they do share some good scenes, it’s rarely because either is setting the other one up for a punchline. Likewise, Marsden and Tika Sumpter, who plays his wife, come off as amiable friends instead of romantically inclined. And nobody has any chemistry with Natasha Rothwell, Tom’s sister-in-law who hates his guts and exists just to go through the “shrill in-law” motions.
- Premature Sequel Baiting. This is a really minor gripe. Movies that presuppose kicking off a franchise come off as cocky at best, cynical at worst. It wasn’t as egregious as in Escape Room, but it does create some janky moments. We start and end the movie with characters clearly meant to be sequel material which feel completely alien to the actual movie we watch.
What Went Right?
- Unlikely Grudge Match. One weird pairing that works in the film came out of left field. Sonic and Tom, and Sonic vs Robotnik are perfunctory, but Tom vs Robotnik surprised me as really interesting. Carrey and Marsden actually play off each other effectively. This allows Tom to be more than the straight-laced goody two-shoes and Robotnik to be more than just a scenery-chewing cartoon baddy. If they do get a sequel, go ahead and let Sonic butt heads with Knuckles or some-such while Tom and Robotnik get the rematch they deserve.
- Dare to be Silly. Sonic the Hedgehog plays it safe, story-wise, but isn’t afraid to indulge in some good old fashioned nonsense now and again. Despite being borderline broken in terms of tension building, Sonic being able to effectively stop time with his speed allows for some delightful “Quicksilver from the X-Men franchise” chicanery. Early one he gets Tom into (and out of) a bar fight via a bonkers series of slow-mo maneuvers. It’s a ton of fun.
- Carrey-ed Away. Jim Carrey can veer into his trademark rubber-faced meglomania in places, but mostly his Robotnik hits his marks. The villainy never feels too corny, mostly because he’s given ample opportunity to flesh out his character by bouncing off other characters. He winds up being just the right foil the film needs.
When he does steal the spotlight for himself, he gets a few fantastic moments like a music video-esque moment with a hilarious dance sequence. I thought Carrey as Robotnik would be one of the film’s heaviest lifts, but Jim owns the role. If they do get a sequel, I’d be hard pressed to buy anyone else as the mad doctor.
How Good is…Sonic the Hedgehog?
I can’t lie. I finished Sonic the Hedgehog feeling pretty dang good about the experience. Some bits are under-baked: the origin story for Sonic feels welded on just to drive interest in a sequel, and Sonic’s power-set doesn’t leave much room for character growth. Otherwise, the film functions admirably.
Rather than getting a round of pity applause for surviving a terrible production cycle, Sonic the Hedgehog makes its own way. Sonic is charming, a nice upgrade from the snarky, too-cool-for-school persona Sonic regularly adopts in other media adaptations. James Marsden and Jim Carrey add quite a bit to the experience, especially when working off each other. The visuals are bright and energetic, and the soundtrack includes some great selections.
I don’t think anyone will mistake Sonic the Hedgehog for a milestone in movie-making history, but given the genre’s general awfulness, delivering an all-around entertaining flick puts the blue blur light years ahead of his peers.