Video game movies are seldom above the level of ‘kind of okay’ in terms of quality. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a Detective Pikachu but most of the time you’ll be stuck with a Doom or, powers that be help us all, Super Mario Bros. Experts have written thousands of words on why Hollywood seems to have so much trouble translating video games to the big screen, a problem that has become unusually complex even as games themselves get more cinematic. A major roadblock that filmmakers hit is in overcomplicating the format. If your source material is about a hero who jumps on things and collects mushrooms, is it really necessary to adapt that into a cyberpunk dinosaur-dystopia with dripping fungus everywhere?
Sega’s beleaguered blue mascot Sonic the Hedgehog has been through a lot since making his gaming debut in 1991. He remains the company’s flagship franchise, even as its popularity seriously waned when faced with competition from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Sonic games have evolved into their own bizarre and wildly convoluted mythos that has become something of a joke within gaming circles, a matter not helped by a deeply dedicated fandom whose expressions of their adoration can be kind of… Look, just don’t Google image search anything related to the games, okay? Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The games got too complex and overlooked the thing that we all loved about them in the first place: A cute hedgehog in red sneakers runs fast through pretty worlds and saves even cuter animals. How do you screw that up?!
The warning signs for 2020’s big-screen debut of Sonic’s adventures, creatively titled Sonic the Hedgehog, were everywhere once the project was announced. Things only got more upsetting when the first trailer revealed a redesign of the iconic creature so horrifying that even David Cronenberg would have told Sega to tone it down. Thankfully, the movie now has a Sonic who, you know, looks like Sonic. I’m sure that some fans will be tweeting #ReleaseTheOldSonicCut at some point but hey, we have Cats for those kinds of CGI nightmares now.
If Sonic the Hedgehog had retained its original monstrous man-hog, the end result would have been a mere distraction to what is otherwise a relatively decent, if dishearteningly unimaginative, family film. As it is, director Jeff Fowler and Paramount’s most dedicated corporate board members have put together something that, to be deeply cynical, could have been way worse.
Sonic (voiced all too perfectly by Ben Schwartz) is your typical super-fast hedgehog with unknown powers who is wanted by every evil person on whatever planet he’s tried to escape to. He’s currently camping out on Earth near the picturesque town of Green Hills, Montana — get it?! — where he tries to avoid being consumed by his crushing loneliness with extended conversations with himself and by spying on the handsome town sheriff (James Marsden). Things are fine until, of course, the big bad government wants to figure out who’s causing all these power outages and sends in Dr. Ivo Robotnik, a mad inventor played by Jim Carrey.
So far, so ‘typical family movie,’ right? Really, that’s the biggest problem Sonic the Hedgehog has. The games, even at their worst, are always situated in vibrant worlds that enrich the imagination of the player. Think of Casino Night in Sonic 2 or Hydrocity Zone in Sonic 3, both of which are highly distinct and offer their own unique challenges and stylistic choices. We get a tantalizing glimpse of the original Green Hill zone, which looks gorgeous, but it’s for less than two minutes and then we’re transported to the mundanity of humanity. Oh goody, Sonic’s running through another indistinguishable forest, then another grey highway that doesn’t look at all like the last grey highway. I’m positively thrilled. Even when the action moves to San Francisco, the story never takes advantage of that. The last thing a dang Sonic adaptation needed was to embrace the gritty street realism of every interchangeable Marvel movie climactic battle.
Everything about Sonic the Hedgehog, even at its most enjoyable, feels like a contractual obligation, as if Paramount had to rush out something before the rights expired and the suits in charge had presented them with a checklist of branding requirements they had to meet. That means we get a crap-ton of product placement and corporate name-dropping, including not one but two plugs for Olive Garden that made me embarrassed for the actors. There’s a particular lack of imagination going on here that feels so derivative of every schlocky ’90s family movie where a hard-working parent is supposed to feel guilty that they missed their whiny kid’s baseball game so they were suddenly cursed by horrific evil forces until they ‘learned their lesson.’ The big difference here is that James Marsden’s lesson to learn is so utterly irrelevant to the plot. Why care about your employment prospects when you’re literally being chased down by the government on terrorist charges?!
Here to make the movie feel even more like we’ve jumped head-first into 1996 is Jim Carrey. I know that ’90s nostalgia is a big thing right now (and wow does that make me feel decrepit?) but was anyone really eager to see Jim Carrey return to his limb-flailing, never-ending use of outdoor voice, elastic gurning shtick? To give him credit, he’s still got it. You wouldn’t think he’d stepped away from the limelight for years to paint terrible political portraits and advocate for the anti-vaccine movement with Jenny McCarthy.
Of course, the real standout from this film, and indeed its lord and savior, is our man James Marsden. Bless this strapping Ken doll come to life, for he has tied this project to his broad shoulders and former Armani model muscled back and he is CARRYING it like the trooper that he is. There’s no slacking on the job with Marsden, especially when it comes to family movies where he has to spend a lot of time talking to animal creatures that aren’t really there. He’s charming, just sardonic enough without ever sacrificing his earnestness, and he elicited a few genuine laughs from me. Seriously, how many times do we have to say that James Marsden deserves far better? I spent a lot of the movie’s running time imagining the amazing rom-com we could have gotten with his small-town sheriff character and his wife, the town vet, played by Tika Sumpter. Their chemistry is way too good to be used on just this movie.
For what it is, which is a big budget family movie designed to be a reasonable enough distraction and nothing more, there’s little to whine about with Sonic the Hedgehog, but this thing should be way better than it is. I assume that any and all sequels will dive more into the classic zones of the game, but while watching this movie in a jam-packed theater, all I could think about was critic David Sims’s assertion that this should have been done in the style of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Of course, the issue with that is that it would have cost money and required a creative team with more of an objective than ‘sell a bunch of plushie toys and Olive Garden gift cards.’
Still, baby Sonic is pretty cute.
Sonic the Hedgehog is in theaters now.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Paramount Pictures