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.

Review: Detective Pikachu

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is fun, and it feels like a video game adaptation made by people who actually care about the franchise. That’s impressive–it’s at this point trite to note that film adaptations of video games are terrible as a rule. Even walking into the theater, excited by nostalgic appeal and the promise of what would at the very least be a colorful (if cheesy) adventure, I doubted whether I’d be fully on-board with the hyper-realistic depictions of Pokémon; this mood was not helped any by a pre-showing trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, with the titular character living deep in the uncanny valley and dialogue that is somehow both campy and generic.

I was swiftly converted, however, by a beautiful early sequence depicting plausible Pokémon inhabiting the world. Even more important was the film’s tone, established quickly, which leans heavy into whimsy and comedy. This is evident from our introduction to Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, bringing a greater degree of bravery and emotional range to the character type he played in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who is tricked into accompanying his childhood friend (Karan Soni, with a quirky comic persona for his one scene) to catch a Cubone. Tim’s friend thinks that they’d be a good match because they’re both “lonely.” We learn that Pokémon can only be caught if they’re willing to be partnered with a trainer. Tim, reluctant to even make the effort, attempts to befriend the Cubone by telling it that not many people could pull off wearing the skull of a “dead relative.” The tiny Cubone does not react kindly to this, to say the least, leading to a failed catch attempt, a hilariously short retreat, and a colossal wipe-out.

cubone.png
Cubone fleeing before the tables are turned.

Justice Smith spends a good portion of the movie acting awkward or uncomfortable and running from CGI Pokémon threats, and I never got tired of it. After that introductory scene, he learns that his father Harry was apparently killed, and he takes a train ride to Rhyme City to close out his deceased parent’s affairs. Not long after reaching his apartment, he meets Detective Pikachu, who possesses the startling and unique ability to communicate with Tim, and who is amnesiac with only a deerstalker cap imprinted with the detective’s name and address linking him to Harry. Smith’s banter with Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous Pokémon sleuth is consistently fast and witty, and the relationship between Tim and his dad’s old partner Pikachu forms the heart of the movie. That’s a good thing–it’s shocking just how charismatic Reynolds can be as a voice applied to a computer-modeled electric yellow mouse. The effects were wonderful, as well, allowing for the feeling of genuine physical interaction between human and Pokémon, which proved critical for many of the action and character beats.

There’s also a low-level love interest between Tim and newsroom intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who team up to try to uncover the mystery that led to the disappearance of Tim’s dad and a rash of unexplained feral Pokémon attacks. (It just dawned on me in this moment that a good portion of this movie’s plot mirrors that of Zootopia). I’m not familiar with Newton, but I got the impression that she’s a good actor, and her film credits mostly support that. She’s very funny and expressive in this film, and she delivers hilarious lines of dialogue with not just a straight face but an inspired fervor. That said, her character’s not really given that much to do, other than tag along with Tim, exchanging barbs, providing sympathy, and occasionally almost-flirting.

I was impressed by the twists and turns of the detective story, and by the action sequences linking events together. I don’t think it would be too hard to predict at least some of those twists, and a lot of the revelations are dependent upon withholding information from the audience. To be fair, it’s information that the viewpoint characters don’t have, and I at least never felt cheated or bored with the mystery. I’ve never played the game, but reading the Wikipedia page tells me that the story and characters should be familiar to diehard fans, but with plenty of changes to keep them on their toes (and to condense story, tighten the connections between characters, and provide a greater sense of closure). Additionally, while I wasn’t particularly moved by Tim’s complicated family situation, especially given that the movie invested more time in action and comedy than quiet character moments, it provided a clear character arc for Justice Smith to work through (Lucy sadly did not get much of an arc), and the bond that formed between Tim and Detective Pikachu was touching and heartfelt.

It should not be surprising that this film is made for fans of the franchise and nostalgic millennials. But it’s a solid action-comedy movie nonetheless! It actually drops in some rules for the universe to explain how Pokémon and humans interact, making things a little more palatable for a hyper-realistic setting and providing some context for non-fans (there’s one scene early on that’s a bit too exposition-heavy, but it fits the moment). So no one should be unable to track what’s going on, even if they’re not too engaged by the parade of cute-yet-creepy, hyper-real corporate mascots. Despite the narrative friendliness to casual viewers, the film also leans hard into the weirdness of Pokémon, with its bizarre combinations of spirituality and science-fiction. While everything makes sense, I could definitely see those not already invested in the consumer cult of Pokémon finding themselves unwilling or unable to accept the radical events of the third act (thankfully, it’s still grounded in character, and I’m confident that even the most skeptical viewer can still depend on the anchoring bond between Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu).

I also have to note that, while having no impact on the larger film, a small bit of exposition basically establishes some version of the events of the first generation of games (or the anime) as part of the canon of this Detective Pikachu film universe, which is an exciting bit of fan service. Less fan service, but definitely pandering to millennials, is a visual reference to Home Alone when Tim enters Harry’s apartment. I imagine there are other such references to millennial nostalgia that I’m forgetting or just missing.

Detective Pikachu is an entertaining, family-friendly action-mystery movie with a lot of humor. It’s also a great Pokémon movie and an excellent video game adaptation. (It might be the first video game adaptation to actually have a mostly positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for what that’s worth!) For those with kids, and for those who are (or were) fans of the Pokémon franchise, this is a good movie to kick off summer early.

At any rate, between this movie and the Let’s Go games, now’s a great time for lapsed or new Pokémon fans to enter the fold.