If any idea was doomed for failure, it would be adapting video games to cinematic form. Among other things, transitioning from an active experience to a passive one limits an adaptation from immersing its audiences. With this shift, it is often difficult for video game adaptations to capture what made their source material appealing. As such, one almost has to give them credit for the small successes they do achieve. At best, we get Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which nicely brings its iconic characters to life for its loopy premise. But on a more regular basis, we get movies like Sonic the Hedgehog, which tries but struggles to do its title character justice.
In all fairness, the filmmakers went to great lengths to nail the speedy blue blur’s essence. Without question, the most obvious labor of love is in the faithful character design. It is easy to imagine a version of this with the early and ugly iteration of Sonic’s appearance. After all, the posters and trailers featured near-complete effects! But since the animators redid many scenes, it shows how deeply they care about maintaining his visual appeal. Much to their credit, they are quite effective at bringing the hyperactive hedgehog to life, complete with a variety of extreme facial expressions. Sure, the rendering is not always seamless when incorporated with live-action elements. Nevertheless, the aesthetic is delightful enough to keep him eminently watchable.
Even outside of the visual aspects, Sonic the Hedgehog spends a lot of time capturing Sonic’s upbeat self. Since the early 1990s, this character exuded a casual and hyperactive personality, and the same holds true here. To no surprise given his comedy and voice acting background, Ben Schwartz slides into the role with no effort. Whether it involves Sonic’s chili dog adoration or Sonic’s intrigue with humans, he is superb at conveying the character’s constant excitement. Additionally, screenwriters Josh Miller & Patrick Casey give Sonic opportunities to be a fun action star and a comic figure. Not only does he get to cross paths with the evil Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), he also partakes in various antics with humans, including an impromptu bar fight.
Still, there is a difference between doing Sonic justice by maintaining his vibe and doing Sonic justice by placing him in a satisfying movie. Unfortunately, it is here that Sonic the Hedgehog falls apart and crumbles. Despite an early tease of arguably the most famous Sonic stage, the film largely grounds itself in the real world. In doing so, it depicts Sonic as a mere “fish out of water” archetype, which itself was already hackneyed when 2011 cursed audiences with The Smurfs. So although Sonic gets to do a lot in the narrative, almost none of it feels fresh. True, it gets through the typical outsider gags more quickly than usual, but they remain uncreative all the same.
More tedious than that, however, is how it becomes a rather uninteresting buddy comedy. As Sonic tries to travel across planets, he crosses paths with officer Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), and the two could not be a less enjoyable pairing if they tried. Of course, there is always a less fantastical character in pairs like this, but Tom comes off as especially bland. In addition to having a basic motivation, Marsden provides such a conventional demeanor to Tom that he becomes a blank slate. If movies like Enchanted used Marsden’s photogenic appearance as a sly joke, this one makes the mistake of using it as a replacement for actual depth.
With this central relationship, Sonic the Hedgehog relies on its spectacle to save itself from being a total slog. Under the hands of director Jeff Fowler, at least it does not embarrass itself in this aspect. On two notable occasions, it goes into extreme slow-motion to show Sonic’s powers much like the Quicksilver scenes in the recent X-Men movies. However, as much as he successfully replicated this stylistic choice on a technical level, he has little new to offer in regards to staging and humor. In fact, the final comedic beat of bystanders reacting with shock and disbelief is shared among both franchises! As a result, what should be exciting instead feels like a mere imitation of what came before.
Perhaps the other element that helps the film’s momentum is its rather odd sense of humor. After a lengthy hiatus, the enigmatic Carrey returns to his world of zany characters, as he delivers every line as if an alien became fluent in English. But as unhinged as he is, it is nothing compared to how the movie generates comedy out of product placement. Despite the minimal time spent on the likes of Olive Garden, Miller & Casey somehow use this time with brutal efficiency. In just a few short lines, they manage to use slogans and name-drop brands as a punchline for certain jokes. This is not to say these moments are actually hilarious, but they admittedly contain a weird energy that few other family comedies have.
All of this is to say that Sonic the Hedgehog feels like an act of busywork more than anything else. Underneath the boilerplate narrative and baffling gags is a decent Sonic movie, and it is annoying to see it buried under so much fluff. None of it is outright offensive, mind you. If nothing else, the reactions from children at my screening prove that this fluff is working for some people. Nevertheless, the bulk of this is Not For Me™, even with all the CGI improvements. I hope that the inevitable Sonic the Hedgehog 2 brings its cartoonish roots more to the forefront. – Mark Tan
Sonic the Hedgehog is now available in theaters.
The film stars Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, and Adam Pally.