Review: Sonic the Hedgehog movie

For Valentine’s Day, my wife and I saw Sonic the Hedgehog. Okay, that sounds like a terrible Valentine’s Day date, perhaps, but if you know my wife well, you know that she’s long loved the blue blur. I’m glad we went because she really liked the movie. However, I did not.

I didn’t hate it. It’s a middle-of-the-road, family-friendly comedy adventure. Ben Schwartz does a very good impression of Jaleel White’s Sonic, turned up to an obnoxious degree of hyperactivity, loneliness, and selfishness. James Marsden is Tom Wachowski, Sonic’s reluctant protector and partner, a small-town sheriff thrust into a larger-stakes scenario just as he prepares to leave that small-town life behind; he’s more charming here than he was as Cyclops. Jim Carrey is peak Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, and most of the best moments in the film revolve around him. There are a few other solid supporting characters, including Tom’s supportive wife (Tika Sumpter) and his bumbling but good-natured deputy (Adam Pally), Robotnik’s long-suffering sidekick (Lee Majdoub), and the town’s lunatic hunter appropriately named Crazy Carl (Frank C. Turner). There aren’t really any bad performances. There aren’t really any slow moments (fast-paced is only appropriate for a Sonic film). There are plenty of jokes that fall flat, but just as many that landed a good laugh.

The story is remarkably bland and not much dependent upon Sonic as a character. In this version, Sonic grew up on an island that resembled Green Hills Zone. He was raised by a new character, an owl named Longclaw. His great speed represented an unusual power in the universe, and Longclaw wanted to hide it, but the reckless young speedster relished in racing about his home. Echidna hunters track him down and attempt to capture him. They mortally wound Longclaw, who supplies Sonic with a bag of dimension-hopping rings and tells him to keep jumping from planet to planet whenever he is discovered. The rings open portals to whatever place Sonic thinks about.

Time passes, and Sonic develops a quiet and comfortable life outside the small town of Green Hills, Montana. In a moment of exasperation and despair over his loneliness, he supercharges himself and unleashes a powerful EMP blast that knocks out power throughout the northwestern United States. The U.S. government deploys Robotnik, an unstable but brilliant scientist, to track down the source of the blast. Sonic prepares to run, but through a series of unfortunate events, he is tranquilized by Tom. As he passes out, he thinks of the city depicted on Tom’s shirt–San Francisco. Unfortunately, this activates a dropped ring, and his bag of rings falls in. Now he’s stuck on Earth unless he can get to San Francisco and track the bag down. When he awakens, he enlists Tom’s aid to escape Robotnik until he can fully recover, and then he ropes him into a road trip to San Francisco when he points out that no matter how fast he can run, he doesn’t know where he’s going.

Tom and Sonic form a friendship despite all obstacles in their way. The biggest obstacle is Sonic, who is truly very annoying. But Sonic and Tom do help each other to grow over the course of the film, and Sonic becomes slightly less annoying as he actually develops real connections with other people. Robotnik, on the other hand, becomes increasingly insane and destructive. The day is saved through the power of small town living and friendship.

It’s a pandering, soggy mess with plenty of moments that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It relies on excessive use of the frozen-time sequences popularized by depictions of Quicksilver or the Flash (and Sonic in fact is shown reading old Flash comics), yet it often treats Sonic as operating under normal human perceptions when that’s more convenient. But that said, it’s never awful. It doesn’t feel as fresh or imaginative as Detective Pikachu. But in a world full of truly awful video game movies, Sonic the Hedgehog is unique in being merely average.

It will probably make you laugh, though you probably won’t feel much else for this movie unless you’re a fan. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and my wife loved it precisely for the many, many references to the franchise’s nearly thirty years of history. I’ve played enough of the games and read enough of the comics and watched enough of the shows, and most importantly absorbed enough of the characters and lore through prolonged exposure to my wife, such that I often got a thrill of recognition at the various references made. References include:

  • The opening island and town both referencing the Green Hills Zone;
  • The ubiquitous use of rings and their distinctive sound effects, including a moment when Sonic falls from an explosion and collapses among rubble and bouncing rings, much like whenever he’s damaged in the games;
  • Sonic using attacks that include his classic spin dash and a variety of jump attacks;
  • A drawing by Crazy Carl that resembles the Sanic meme;
  • The echidna hunters at the start of the game resembling Knuckles and his tribe;
  • Robotnik having blueprints for other robotic vehicles that resemble some of his boss battle vehicles from the games, and a label in his breaker panel for “Badniks,” the name for his robotic army;
  • The basic plot of the game, with Sonic teleported to Earth, allying with a local, and being chased by the military/government and Robotnik, mirroring the basic plot of Sonic X;
  • Chase sequences in the latter half of the film referencing moments from various Sonic games, including a direct visual reference to the “City Escape” level of Sonic Adventure 2;
  • The mushroom planet Sonic intends to escape to from Earth appearing to be a nod to the Mushroom Hill Zone and perhaps more barren areas of some depictions of the planet Mobius; and
  • The credits beginning over a series of pixelated animations that reinterpret the events of the film in a way that mirrors gameplay of several of the original games.

I’m sure there are other references I forgot or didn’t even catch. As an example of a reference that I definitely didn’t get, but that my wife loved: there was a cowboy hat Sonic wore that was reminiscent of a hat associated with some versions of Knuckles.

References alone don’t make a movie good, though. At best, for a recognized property, they can be a nice sort of seasoning on top. But in this case, while I enjoyed picking up on references, I found many of them to be little more than reminders of what a Sonic movie could have been. There are so many different storylines, each with their own lore, and so many characters that could have been used. Instead, we take Sonic out of his element. While Sonic mostly feels right, and Carrey’s Robotnik seems just about perfect, it’s disappointing that none of the many other characters in the Sonic ‘verse were used. I think most people who became or remained fans of Sonic in the post-3D era are fans at least in part because of the elaborate characters with their colorful designs and distinctive personalities. The shifting relationships between characters, and the core dynamics that remain the same between the central figures, keep things compelling, at least on a soap opera-type level. And we get none of that here.

The movie was fine. I don’t regret seeing it, yet I don’t have any desire to see it again. But there is something that does excite me. If you care about spoilers for this movie, this is the time to stop reading. There were two mid-credits scenes. One involved Robotnik eking out an existence on the mushroom planet, further descended into madness and more closely resembling his video game counterpart. But the one I got excited for was the second: Tails appears! Tails! When Tails showed up, I actually growled, “YES!” He looks like the perfect boy that he is. And his voice and dialogue, however brief, were perfect as well–eager, optimistic, and determined. (The voice should be perfect, given that it’s apparently Colleen Villard, who voices Tails in more recent games and in the Sonic Boom series.) He’s using some sort of electronic device to track Sonic, he’s determined to save the day, and he’s also really fast (I especially loved that component–he’s often depicted as using a plane or some other technology to keep up with Sonic, but his original incarnation in the game tailed right along with the hedgehog, and I’ve long taunted my wife with “Tails is faster” based on our experiences with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 multiplayer.) Sure, I didn’t care for this movie. But I’d love to see a sequel in which Tails and Sonic team up. Even better, I hope that they return to Sonic’s home world–and maybe they’ll have the chance to meet with some of his other classic allies. I’m not looking for a Sonic Cinematic Universe, and I don’t want it, but I would like another big-screen story or two that realizes the potential of Sonic’s many supporting characters.

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